Holding China Accountable in Burma

In the immediate aftermath of the earthquake that’s devastated China’s Sichuan province, killing tens of thousands and rendering millions homeless, much praise has been bestowed on the communist regime’s quick and efficient response to the crisis.  

Hundreds of government helicopters dropped food and medicine to survivors in mountain villages.  Tens of thousands of soldiers labored to plug hundreds of crumbling dams. Trains carried quilts, drinking water and tents to remote areas.  Chinese President Hu Jintao was even seen with a bull horn at ground zero, reassuring a suffering nation and urging those still trapped under rubble not to give up hope.  

But China’s humane response to its the earthquake stands in stark contrast to its cruel and calculated efforts to prevent similar aid from reaching the people of Burma, where the ruling junta stands idly by while millions teeter on the edge of life.

It’s been two weeks since a cyclone devastated the Southeast Asian nation of Burma (also known as Myanmar) on May 2nd.  With 120 mph winds creating waves up to 20 feet high, the cyclone wiped entire cities off the map and swept thousands of people into the Indian Ocean.  As of Thursday, the death toll stood at about 130,000, according to the Red Cross.   

Even worse is the looming “second wave” of death and destruction that has put some two million people at risk of disease and starvation.  A spokesman for the regional United Nations office said:  “Our biggest concern is that the aftermath of the cyclone could be more deadly than the storm itself.”

Some estimates put the number of expected killed when all is said and done at 1 million people, a number larger than the population of 65 countries.   Greg Beck of the International Rescue Committee, said, “Unless there is a massive and fast infusion of aid, experts and supplies into the hardest-hit areas, there’s going to be a tragedy on an unimaginable scale.”

Sadly, only a trickle of relief aid has been allowed to enter Burma.  The American Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART) was denied access and visas, and several medical teams from Doctors Without Borders were ordered to leave without explanation.  The Burmese junta has also turned away search and rescue teams, and hundreds of foreign aid workers are stuck in Thailand waiting for visas in order to enter the country.  

Why would Burma shun much-needed assistance for its people from a ready and willing international community?  As Shari Villarosa, the top American diplomat in Burma, explained to the New York Times, “Their distrust of foreigners is keeping that out.  They are very suspicious.  They think that they’re up to no good.”   Villarosa also said, “These guys really believe we are planning an invasion.  It’s nuts!  We’re not!  But if they hear that a large U.S. ship is off the coast, they don’t receive the message that it’s a genuine humanitarian effort.”

Burma has sealed itself off from the world since a military coup in 1962, and has since pursued what the regime calls “the Burmese Way to Socialism.”  The junta’s dilemma is that if it opens its doors to foreigners, it may never be able to close them again.  The junta’s foremost goal is to retain its grip on power, a goal to which everything else, including the lives of millions of its citizens, takes a back seat.  

The world is ready to help.  President Bush has pledged $3.25 million in emergency aid to a nation normally cut off from it because of its government’s dismal human rights record.  And there are 11,000 service members and four ships in the region that are ready to act as soon as the go-ahead is given.  Admiral Timothy Keating, head of the U.S. pacific Command, said, “We’re limited only by the permission from the authorities in Burma.”  

Even the United Nations wants to intervene, but Burma’s “president,” Than Swe, refuses even to meet with U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, even though Ban has tried repeatedly to reassure Than that “This is not about politics; it is about saving people’s lives.”

That sentiment should be directed at China, which has thwarted every U.N. effort to intervene.  Last week, China blocked a proposal to have the U.N. humanitarian chief brief the Security Council on Burma, insisting that governments should not “politicize the issue.”

Just as it has done in Sudan, where an authoritarian regime continues to inflict genocide on the people of Darfur, China is using its position as a veto-wielding member of the Security Council to thwart U.N. efforts to hold a rogue regime accountable for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of its own citizens.  

China contends that it must respect Burma’s sovereignty, an excuse that rings hollow for many reasons, not least because three years ago the U.N. passed a resolution under which urgent humanitarian needs can override national sovereignty concerns.  Further, international law requires that a state has the responsibility to allow “rapid and unimpeded access” to humanitarian assistance, especially when authorities are unwilling or unable to meet the need, clearly the case in Burma

What can be done to save millions from dying needlessly?  

The U.S., France, Great Britain and other nations should insist that China, which exercises more influence over the military junta than any other country, pressure Burma to open up to international aid.  This coalition should also threaten to boycott the Olympic Games, set to begin in Beijing in less than three months, if China does not cease to block U.N. resolutions aimed at providing assistance to Burma.

In the aftermath of its deadly earthquake, China has refreshingly opened up to foreign aid and assistance to help save the lives of its people.  “We welcome funds and supplies,” a top Chinese disaster relief official told western media on Wednesday.  It’s high time that China allow the international community to provide the same funds and supplies to Burma.