Today's date:
Summer 2008

The Myanmar Dilemma: Aid or Democracy?

Thant Myint-U is the author of The River of Lost Footsteps: A Personal History of Burma. He is the grandson of former UN Secretary-General U Thant.

New York — As early as 1990, Rolf Carriere, then UNICEF's director in Yangon, warned of a "silent emergency" afflicting Myanmar's poorest, especially its children. He argued that there was a desperate need for humanitarian and development aid, and that this assistance could not wait for democratic change.

His call went largely unheeded. The military government pleaded for assistance, especially from the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, to reform the economy. But Western governments had just begun to impose sanctions in the hope of nudging the junta toward democracy, and nearly all aid, including through the United Nations, was cut off.

Only in the last several years have things begun to change. Several UN agencies and international charities have tried hard to help the country's most vulnerable people, with support from a few governments, such as England and Norway. But it's hardly been enough.

Myanmar is one of the poorest nations in the world, with millions living in extreme poverty. But the average Myanmar citizen receives less than $2 a year in international aid, about a tenth of per capita aid to Vietnam and a twentieth of per capita aid to Laos and Cambodia. Thousands, mainly children, die every year from treatable diseases such as malaria.

And though the government had once looked forward to aid, it eventually became suspicious, especially when allegations of a humanitarian crisis in Myanmar were used to press for UN Security Council action. They worried that humanitarian issues served as camouflage for a "regime-change" agenda and that aid workers themselves were a Fifth Column. They knew that foreign funds were also helping the pro-democracy dissidents both at home and abroad and feared that aid programs were part and parcel of a conspiracy designed to unseat them.

Many of the regime's opponents were also suspicious, believing that any aid would be misdirected or only further entrench the status quo. They pointed to the government's own long track record of economic mismanagement. A fierce debate ensued. At the very time the UN was trying to scale up assistance, Myanmar's authorities began to tighten restrictions. Cyclone Nargis struck at a time of particularly sensitive relations between the junta and the aid community.

The outrage felt at the lack of international access is more than understandable. Hundreds of thousands of lives are at stake. But the actions of the generals should also come as no surprise. Myanmar's government is not simply a military government. At its core is a security machine developed over a half-century of civil war and foreign intervention. Everything is viewed through a security lens. The idea of throwing open the country's borders to international aid teams goes against the most basic instincts of the men in power. It will never happen.

And if the diplomacy around securing access seems tough, the dilemmas around any future recovery may be thornier still. Once the immediate cyclone crisis is over, the Irrawaddy Delta will require a gargantuan reconstruction effort, lasting months if not years. Entire towns have been wrecked, millions displaced and their livelihoods ruined. With rice prices sky high, the lives of millions more could become untenable.

Should the UN and others only provide emergency humanitarian aid and then leave? Or can the world help revive the Irrawaddy Delta, once Asia's greatest rice exporter, and ensure its future prosperity (and greater food security for the entire region)? Can there be any logic to maintaining sweeping US and European economic sanctions—on aid, trade and investment—while also trying to rebuild the devastated areas?

And what of the rest of the country? The delta is obviously the urgent priority, but huge numbers of other people live in terrible poverty. Should not aid be increased for them as well? The north and the east—especially the uplands inhabited by Myanmar's many ethnic minorities—have suffered from decades of war, with enormous humanitarian challenges of their own. Can any rehabilitation of the delta's economy be possible without a more general vision of Myanmar's economic development? What sorts of reforms are needed, and what kind of economic dialogue is possible with the ruling junta?

There are, of course, the political challenges as well, until recently the nearly sole focus of international attention. Myanmar's generals will want to push ahead with their new constitution, one that ensures the military a dominant position (such as past constitutions in Indonesia and Thailand). Dozens of ethnic-based insurgent armies have agreed to ceasefires with the Myanmar army, but there is no permanent peace and moves toward disarmament and demobilization are just beginning.

Can the UN both push for political change and be the institution working on humanitarian and development issues? As Carriere questioned years ago, does help for the poorest have to wait for democracy? And given the frantic attempts to influence (or even make contact with) Myanmar's reclusive generals, does any policy of further isolation make any sense?

After getting aid to the victims of Cyclone Nargis, that is the complex challenge to come.