Myanmar, one of Asia´s poorest countries where peaceful demonstrations for democracy were brutally crushed last year, is now back in the headlines after cyclone Nargus swept through the country, leaving a death toll that could be as high as 100,000.
The military junta that has ruled Myanmar for decades has acknowledged that some 41,000 people were missing in the wake of the cyclone, with about one million more left homeless. U.S. and international sources, however, put the death toll at 100,000 and say it could be considerably higher if aid is not received promptly to address homelessness, hunger, and the spread of disease.
Myanmar´s junta, however, is letting in only a trickle of international aid and has restricted visas to aid workers. The situation raises the question of whether outside institutions have any power, economic or otherwise, to pressure a government to protect its own citizens.
The Burmese military is reluctant to allow foreigners into the country after it brutally squashed democratic demonstrations led by unarmed Buddhist monks last fall and shut down much contact with the outside to isolate its opponents. It is also sensitive about international opinion just days before a national election is due to be held on a new constitution proposed by the military.
The Myanmar media shows generals handing out food to the homeless and the government insists that it has devoted sufficient resources to aiding the cyclone´s victims. Experts, however, say that Myanmar does not have enough helicopters, boats or money resources to address a disaster of this magnitude.
Meanwhile, countries like the United States, Germany, the United Kingdom, France, Spain and India all have aid or resources prepared to distribute to the victims, but their workers have not been given permission to enter the country. The United Nations World Food Program, for instance, has 45 tons of biscuits prepared to fly to the country, but its staff are still awaiting visas to enter Myanmar and help with distribution.
Clearly, economic sanctions to pressure the government are completely out of the question. But few other alternatives remain. How can Western governments and other institutions aid the people of Myanmar?