Yet more tragedy for Myanmar

The tragedy that is Myanmar worsens. A country that was once Southeast Asia’s richest and most promising has steadily deteriorated. It is now a corrupt military-run tyranny, an economic basket case and an international pariah. The man-made disaster in Myanmar was horribly compounded this month when cyclone Nargis hit, claiming tens of thousands of lives and leaving a swath of destruction that threatens hundreds of thousands — perhaps millions — more.

And, true to form, the country’s military junta has put its interests before those of its citizens, frustrating efforts to help and slowing and even blocking aid. This is inexcusable. Nonetheless, it is also virtually certain to continue, with the tacit acceptance of Myanmar’s neighbors and so-called friends.

Nargis cut across the Irrawaddy Delta, one of Myanmar’s key rice-producing areas, on May 3, inundating a region that was already isolated and underdeveloped. Reports of the scale of Nargis’ destruction trickled out, with government estimates a fraction of unofficial numbers. Yet one week after the storm hit, more than 60,000 people were officially listed as either killed or missing; some fear the death toll will top 100,000, making Nargis the worst disaster in Myanmar’s history and one of the world’s worst in half a century.

Disaster experts know that the key to cutting the casualty count is a quick response: the first 72 hours are critical. After that, a second disaster strikes: Survivors are overwhelmed by shortages of food, shelter, medicines and clean water, which leads to outbreaks of disease and requires even more medical attention. Myanmar is one of the world’s poorest countries, in which nearly 90 percent of the population lives on $1 a day. It lacks infrastructure and the World Health Organization ranked the country’s health-care system as the second-worst in the world. Not surprisingly, relief experts reckon that 1.5 million people in Myanmar are at risk in a second wave of disaster.

It is doubly damning, then, that Myanmar’s government has held up international relief efforts. The military junta is xenophobic and deeply paranoid. It has preached self-sufficiency to its people, while enriching its ruling elites with deals that deplete the country’s natural wealth and line their own pockets. It was sadly predictable that the government would stymie assistance efforts by focusing on controlling the distribution of aid and limiting the number of foreign workers on the ground rather than ensuring that the most victims were helped.

Within days, some $38 million in aid pledges had come in. Japan initially promised ¥28 million worth of relief goods and later added another ¥36 million in supplies. It then announced up to $10 million of emergency assistance, surpassing Britain to become Myanmar’s largest donor. Yangon has welcomed all the help but refuses to let foreign workers into the country to distribute aid.

Despite the scale of the disaster and the mounting death toll, the government continues to frustrate international relief efforts. It has been slow to let international flights land. Planes and naval vessels have been deployed to the region to deliver aid and experts, but they await permission to enter the country.

Worker visas have been held up: Reportedly, applications from friendly countries have been approved, while those from critical and Western nations have been blocked. A personal appeal by U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon was rebuffed.

Meanwhile, the government went ahead Saturday with a national referendum on a new constitution that enshrines the military’s role in government. The new charter is a sham and a fair election would have been impossible in the best of times. The government held off the vote in the hardest-hit areas, which includes Yangon, the country’s largest city and a locus of dissent against the government.

Consolidating power may soon be the least of the government’s concerns. The Irrawaddy Delta produces some 65 percent of Myanmar’s rice. Nargis hit as rice farmers were harvesting the dry season crop, which accounts for about one-quarter of the country’s annual production. Warehouses and their stores were destroyed. Seawater carried inland will further cut future production. There are reports that rice prices have increased 50 percent in local markets. There is little hope for relief with international supplies already constrained.

Rising prices triggered riots last summer that led to shootings and international condemnation. Twenty years ago, inflated rice prices triggered even larger disturbances that resulted in hundreds of deaths. Unfortunately, the government in Myanmar has shown no inclination to temper its hardline response. The eventual outcome of this tragedy is plainly visible.

The only question now is whether friends of the long-suffering people of Myanmar are prepared to do something to end their misery or sit back and let the junta continue its abusive reign.