What Mr. Ban Can Do for Burma


by Suzanne DiMaggio, Director, Asian Social Issues Program (ASIP), Asia Society

Originally presented in the Far Eastern Economic Review, May 23, 2008

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s visit to Burma comes nearly three weeks into the humanitarian crisis following Cyclone Nargis which, according to U.N. reports, has claimed the lives of anywhere from 70,000 to more than 100,000 people. It is still unclear whether Secretary-General Ban will be permitted to meet with the leader of the military junta, Senior Gen. Than Shwe, who has reportedly snubbed the numerous telephone calls made and messages sent by Mr. Ban in the cyclone’s aftermath.

On Sunday, the secretary-general is scheduled to attend a conference of international donors in Rangoon, which is being convened under the auspices of the U.N. and Burma’s neighbors in the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean). The goal is to coordinate aid to the estimated 2.5 million victims. It is projected that a mere 20% of the effected population has received any aid to date.

Meanwhile, the ruling generals have announced that relief efforts are smoothly moving ahead—so well, they say, that they are now ready to move into “reconstruction” phase.

But first hand reports from U.N. agencies and aid workers on the ground in Burma tell a much different story. The U.N. World Food Programme estimates that it will need to move 390 tons of food on a daily basis in an effort to prevent mass starvation and reach the 750,000 people it is targeting over the next 30 days.

Various aid organizations are focusing on the provision of safe drinking water and the prevention and treatment of diseases associated with poor water and sanitation conditions. The World Health Organization (WHO) is anticipating outbreaks of waterborne diseases such as malaria and dengue fever within weeks.

Reports are also surfacing that children orphaned or separated from their families due to the cyclone are being targetted by child traffickers for exploitation or abuse.

Secretary-General Ban has been emphasizing that his mission to Burma is purely humanitarian, not political. But the reality is that the ruling generals politicized this tragedy when they made the decision not to allow the international community to provide the Burmese people with the assistance they desperately need.

Moreover, as the humanitarian disaster was unfolding, the military leaders moved forward with a national referendum to approve a new constitution—demonstrating in stark terms that their real priority is tightening their repressive grip on power rather than tending to the well being of the Burmese people.

The coming weeks will be critical. If the ruling generals are allowed to continue their charade, there is every indication that the conditions are ripe for a much graver humanitarian emergency. Given these dire circumstances, Mr. Ban should convey to the generals in the strongest possible terms that the international community will no longer stand idle as they continue to put lives at risk.

The priority should be preventing further loss of life and needless suffering and, as such, Secretary-General Ban should demand an immediate increase in access for international relief workers. He also should insist on an assessment of the situation and current needs to be conducted by an independent team of experts who are given full and unfettered access to disaster areas. Without such an evaluation, the effectiveness of the conference of donors in Rangoon on Sunday will be undermined.

It will be especially difficult to get agreement from the generals on an assessment because it will expose the extent of their criminal behavior. Indeed, if the scale of the devastation approaches the numbers being projected and if it is revealed that people who could have been saved died because of the regime’s failure to protect its own people, many will push to characterize the junta’s behavior as a “crime against humanity.”

Invoking such language would have serious implications for the U.N. and international law, including bringing into play the “responsibility to protect” doctrine, which says if a government is unable or unwilling to protect the interests of its own people, the international community then may have the legal right and moral obligation to step in. This gives Secretary-General Ban some leverage and he should use it.

Suzanne DiMaggio is former vice president of Global Policy Programs at the United Nations Association of the USA and current director of Asia Society’s Social Issues Program.