It seems like only yesterday when we were debating whether to do a “regime change” in Burma. Actually it was only last month when a powerful coalition of humanitarian interventionists and and a complex of international aid groups in Washington and Europe were calling on the “international community” to use military power (U.S., NATO) to force the military regime in Rangoon to allow foreign aid workers to enter the country and help save the survivors of a powerful cyclon from certain death.

Today we read in The New York Times that

More than six weeks have passed since Cyclone Nargis swept through the Irrawaddy Delta in southern Myanmar, leaving a trail of flattened villages and broken lives and arousing international sympathy that turned to anguish as the military government obstructed foreign aid.

Now doctors and aid workers returning from remote areas of the delta are offering a less pessimistic picture of the human cost of the delay in reaching survivors.

They say they have seen no signs of starvation or widespread outbreaks of disease. While it is estimated that the cyclone may have killed 130,000 people, the number of lives lost specifically because of the junta’s slow response to the disaster appears to have been smaller than expected.

Relief workers here continue to criticize the government’s secretive posture and obsession with security, its restrictions on foreign aid experts and the weeks of dawdling that left bloated bodies befouling waterways and survivors marooned with little food. But the specific character of the cyclone, the hardiness of villagers and aid from private citizens helped prevent further death and sickness, aid workers say.

Most of the people killed by the cyclone, which struck on May 2-3, drowned. But those who survived were not likely to need urgent medical attention, doctors say.


The United States has accused the military government of “criminal neglect” in its handling of the disaster caused by the cyclone. Privately, many aid workers have, too. The junta, widely disliked among Myanmar’s citizens, did not have the means to lead a sustained relief campaign, they say.

But relief workers say the debate over access for foreigners and the refusal of the government to allow in military helicopters and ships from the United States, France and Britain overshadowed a substantial relief operation carried out mainly by Burmese citizens and monks.

As I suggested in earlier posts it would be great if the Burmese people were given more access to the global economy (by removing the U.S. economic embargo against that country, for example) and if the bunch of paranoid murderers in Rangoon were replaced with the kind of military regime that is in charge in, say, Egypt, our great ally. But as David Rieff, recalling other humanitarian interventions and the “regime change” we did in Baghdad contends:

The harsh truth is that it is one thing for people of conscience to call for wrongs to be righted but it is quite another to fathom the consequences of such actions. Good will is not enough; nor is political will. That is because, as Iraq has taught us so painfully, the law of unintended consequences may be one of the few iron laws of international politics. And somewhere, despite all the outcry, leaders know that the same people calling for intervention may repudiate it the moment it goes wrong.