Thursday, May 15, 2008

Our moral imperative, ignored

May 13, 2008

There is nothing shocking about the actions of Myanmar's government. Anyone paying attention during the last 46 years of military rule there could have easily predicted that the malignant regime would again fail its people during a major natural disaster. What is truly shocking is what the rest of us are doing.

Now, in the second week after Cyclone Nargis swept ashore, wiping away perhaps 100,000 people, more than a million more Burmese face the imminent risk of hunger, disease and death. Nobody could have prevented a cyclone from hitting Myanmar (although much could have been done to lessen the impact with even minimal help from the government). The slow-motion catastrophe building now, however, is preventable, if only the generals will stand back and let the help come in.

But what if the military junta, which has already terrorized its people, ransacked the country's resources, and destroyed its economy, persists? What if the junta continues to keep the desperately needed water purification systems and food and medical care beyond the reach of the people? What then are we to do? Can we simply wash our hands? Are we morally absolved if we say, "We told them; we complained; we insisted, but they refused?" Is that enough?

All the loud and eloquent expression of outrage may soothe our guilt, but it does nothing to help the people of Myanmar. It should not.

The one statement we should heed today is the maxim attributed to Edmund Burke: "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing."

The sight of one or even several American planes loaded with supplies, or a few UN cargo flights arriving in Myanmar, may tempt us to deceive ourselves into thinking the problem is being addressed. The aid arriving in the Irrawaddy River delta amounts to a cupful of water in a vast ocean of need. It is designed only to ease the pressure on the generals, not on their victims.

How long will we wait for real action?

The legal framework for intervention is in place. Three years ago, the UN's General Assembly approved a document endorsing the concept of "responsibility to protect." The community of nations made a commitment to uphold the principle that governments have a responsibility to protect their populations from genocide, ethnic cleansing, war crimes and crimes against humanity. And, that if a government failed in this responsibility, the duty to protect fell to the international community.

History has taught us not to expect Myanmar's toxic regime to uphold any such duty. But now, it is the international community that is guilty of dereliction of duty. If preventing emergency aid from reaching the needy is not a crime against humanity, then what is it?

The legal problem, as usual, lies in the UN Security Council, where China—Myanmar's reliable ally—along with Russia, would block any attempt to intervene by force. Pressuring the generals now seems fairly pointless. There is little time left for diplomatic niceties. The pressure now must fall on China and Russia to support a resolution calling for intervention.

Clearly, bringing aid at the point of a gun is no easy task. Aid workers don't relish working with military forces. But the incompetent and cowardly Burmese generals, the ones afraid to let their people even interact with outsiders, will wilt under the threat of international intervention, especially if Beijing makes it clear to them that they have no choice.

China and Russia must understand that they have a key role to play, and that they are now standing, in Burke's equation, on the side of evil.

Chances are that the moment the world takes up its moral responsibility, Myanmar's generals will stand back. But what if they don't? As human beings, we face a moral imperative: Are we going to stand by and allow the deaths of tens of thousands, of hundreds of thousands of children, women, men, fishermen, farmers, mothers, fathers?

Will we really sit back and wait for the body count? It is that prospect, not the inaction of the generals, that should shock all of us into action.

Frida Ghitis is the author of "The End of Revolution: A Changing World in the Age of Live Television."

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