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Politicizing Burma's Tragedy

By Ivan Eland
May 14, 2008


Editor’s Note: For a government that left New Orleans to drown, it did seem odd for the Bush administration to go on the offensive about the failures of Burma’s dictators to anticipate and react to the devastating cyclone of last week.


With First Lady Laura Bush in the lead, the White House scored some political points but predictably scared the paranoid Burmese leadership about possibly ulterior motives in the relief effort, as Ivan Eland notes in this guest essay:

From the administration that used the 9/11 tragedy to violently pursue an unrelated vendetta against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, we get Round Two.

After a cyclone devastated portions of Burma (which the despotic Burmese government has renamed Myanmar) and killed an estimated 100,000 people, instead of concentrating on providing relief, the Bush administration couldn’t resist scoring points on First Lady Laura Bush’s pet issue—the tyranny of the Burmese military junta.

Mrs. Bush, apparently the administration’s self-anointed czar and expert on U.S. policy toward Burma, went before the White House press corps and laid into the Burmese government for giving its citizens insufficient warning of the coming storm.

One day later at a White House ceremony that just so happened to honor Aung San Suu Kyi, a high-profile proponent of Burmese democracy who has been detained in that country, the President himself piled it on, first by offering U.S. government aid, and then by lambasting the Burmese dictators for delays in approving visas for emergency workers.

Yes, the Burmese junta is reclusive and tyrannical. But when a hundred thousand innocents may have died in a catastrophe, and many more tens of thousands of lives hang in the balance, the time is not right to make a regime, already paranoid of the outside world, even more jittery of outside interference—especially when the West is trying to get emergency workers and relief supplies in to the restrictive nation.

(The administration has made a similar mistake by saber-rattling against a paranoid and nuclear-armed North Korean regime.)

Any administration criticism of the junta should have been held at least until the country is able to get back on its feet.

Once the disaster had already occurred, it was especially unhelpful for the First Lady to focus on the irrelevant matter of whether the Burmese government had issued adequate advance warning.

Furthermore, the secretive junta was slow to open the country to outside relief workers and supplies, but the U.S. president’s public criticism certainly was not going to—and did not—help matters. Not surprisingly, the junta’s “slow roll” on admission of relief workers and badly needed provisions continued.

As should have been learned during Jimmy Carter’s administration, autocratic regimes usually get angry and push back or become more obstinate when publicly criticized. After all, criticisms by foreign governments are not known to most of their oppressed populations, thus relieving any pressure to loosen up their systems.

Even Burmese dissident groups criticized the timing of the administration’s rhetorical onslaught against the junta—declaring that it made getting rapid relief to the desperately needy that much more difficult.

According to the Washington Post, exiled Burmese political analyst Aung Naing Oo called Laura Bush’s verbal harangue “totally and utterly inappropriate. She is trying to score political points out of people’s disaster.”

Similarly, the newspaper also quotes Thant Myint-U, a former United Nations official and Burmese historian as saying, “the problem is that everything, including aid, has been politicized, with suspicions on all sides.”

In response to the administration’s verbal barrage, a Burmese government spokesman defended the junta’s storm warning, request for international help, and provision of boats and helicopters.

He noted that the government had issued a cyclone warning two days before the storm, and retorted that “...what we are doing is better than the Bush administration response to the Katrina storm in 2005, if you compare the resources of the two countries.” Ouch!

So as with U.S. policy toward Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, administration attempts to score points in its campaign of global democratization against despotic regimes are unfortunately likely to result in much needless loss of life.

Ivan Eland is Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at The Independent Institute. Dr. Eland has spent 15 years working for Congress on national security issues, including stints as an investigator for the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Principal Defense Analyst at the Congressional Budget Office. His books include The Empire Has No Clothes: U.S. Foreign Policy Exposed, and Putting “Defense” Back into U.S. Defense Policy.

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