Earlier this month a devastating cyclone swept across Myanmar killing thousands and leaving many more stranded without food, water, or shelter. The government made an appeal for assistance from the international community. While the U.N. and countries around the world expressed a willingness to help, relief efforts quickly became politicized.
The U.S. pledged aid but conditioned assistance by saying that an American disaster response team had to be allowed into the country. Taking the opportunity to criticize Myanmar’s internal political situation, President Bush announced the presentation of the Congressional Gold Medal to a Myanmar dissident leader and chastised the government for failing to warn its citizens of the storm.
The isolationist government of Myanmar declared that it alone would coordinate distribution of aid within the country. Citing the need for accountability, the U.N. and other agencies rejected this restriction, stating that recipients of aid need to be identified by officials and delivery has to be monitored. Observers have speculated that aid delivered to the region was diverted away from victims by the military government.
Meanwhile, the numbers of people in desperate need of assistance has risen to hundreds of thousands. Many pleas have been made by humanitarians to consider alternatives such as leveraging China’s influence with the military leadership of Myanmar, compromising on requirements for relief aid, and directly intervening in the stricken areas, despite the government’s restrictions.
Evacuation and relief efforts after Hurricane Katrina provoked a strong political response nationally and internationally. Comparisons to China’s response to a devastating earthquake last week already abound. Do all natural disasters have political implications? What is the duty of the global community to victims of a natural disaster? Is there a humanitarian obligation that transcends nation?
How reasonable is it to expect governments to be able to suspend hostilities? Should Myanmar’s government be suspicious of infiltration or international interference by the U.S. or other foreign governments offering aid? Is direct intervention a legitimate option if all others are exhausted?
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