Myanmar: Why We Have to Talk to the Bad Guys

A new natural disaster has hit. So, why are we seeing the same old mistakes in diplomacy?

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Once again, a grave humanitarian crisis draws attention to the virtues of calibrated, but constructive international diplomatic engagement, even with the most unsavory of characters. Eighteen days ago, Cyclone Nargis ravaged southwestern Myanmar, affecting nearly 2.5 million people. Myanmar's isolationist ruling junta has responded abysmally to the crisis, rejecting assistance from foreign aid workers and blocking entry of large-scale international humanitarian aid. The few international organizations that were already on the ground struggled for days to mobilize relief operations before the government reluctantly allowed some relief supplies to trickle into the country.

The government estimates that 134,000 people are dead or missing. More than 500,000 people are homeless, sheltered in temporary settlements and facing grave health risks as a result of injury, lack of clean water and infectious diseases. Reports indicate that assistance has reached only 25 percent of the affected population. Likely, the death toll is dreadfully higher than the government estimates.

The tragic response to the Myanmar catastrophe showcases a significant strategic hole in international diplomacy, the failure to effectively engage regional alliances to swiftly respond to emergency situations. Lessons from the tragic Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami in 2004 have been forgotten. It has taken more than two weeks to get Myanmar to agree to international aid relief for victims. The first U.S. military flight with relief supplies was allowed in 10 days after the cyclone hit, and since then only a few flights have been permitted to land. U.S., French, and British ships carrying supplies remain stationed off the coast while victims suffer.

The junta's reaction to the crisis – preparing for a national security threat rather than a humanitarian disaster – should not have been a surprise. It has led an isolationist regime governed by paranoia since it violently came to power in 1988, crushing the country's pro-democracy movement. U.S.-Myanmar relations significantly deteriorated as a result of the coup and have been severely strained by a succession of broad U.S. sanctions.

All the political avenues to Myanmar's capital begin in Thailand, China and India, and all require deft diplomacy. Countries, like the United States, seeking to contribute to humanitarian efforts must be willing not only to engage the military junta, but to work closely and innovatively with Myanmar's allies in the region to rescue the innocent from government incompetence.

There are some signs of hope. Key U.N. officials and diplomats from select countries have been allowed to tour the cyclone hit areas in the past few days, an invitation seemingly aimed at deflecting the growing criticism of the slow and inadequate military government response as well as calls for forceful humanitarian intervention.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations, of which Myanmar is a member, has announced the establishment of a humanitarian relief coordinating mechanism. As noted in ASEAN's May 19 press release, "…this mechanism will facilitate the effective distribution and utilization of assistance from the international community, including the expeditious and effective deployment of relief workers, especially health and medical personnel." The press release goes on to urge that assistance given through ASEAN "should not be politicized." Myanmar is apparently willing to accept international assistance under these conditions. For too many, this is too little, too late. For many others, let us hope that this mechanism can channel much needed aid to avert a widening disaster.

The devastation caused by the cyclone in Myanmar will not be the last disaster that cannot be managed by its own government. It is clear more needs to be done for the international community to strengthen regional emergency response capabilities. The political "pariahs" of the world pose the gravest challenges. Without channels of engagement with these types of governments, however, we will continue to face the exorbitant price of doing next to nothing.

Sundaa Bridgett Jones is an International Affairs Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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