Myanmar's Junta Gets a Pass from Powerful Neighbors

Editor's Note: On the eve of an emergency summit of Asian nations, the death toll in Myanmar continues to rise, and the cyclone-ravaged country's ruling Junta has not been taken to task by its powerful neighbors. NAM editor Andrew Lam is the author of "Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora".

San Francisco -- A few years ago in Bangkok, a local journalist shared with me this observation about Southeast Asia: "The misfortunes of poor countries are automatic fortunes of their rich neighbors. It's the law of the jungle."

Primary examples that regularly fall into the unfortunate country category would be Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia and, of course, Myanmar.

Countries like China, India, Singapore, Thailand, on the other hand, are sitting pretty: "These countries pay the strongmen of poorer countries so they can come in and cut down their forests, access their mines, siphon off natural resources, tap their rivers, and invest," said the journalist. "Not to mention the benefit of having near slave wages."

This is why the lack of condemnation of the Junta in Myanmar for its inaction in the wake of the cyclone by its neighbors holds little surprise. But, nevertheless, it is jarring in the face of the deepening crisis in Myanmar.

Thai Prime Minister Samak Sundaravejended returned from his one-day visit to Yangon, Myanmar on Wednesday, and more or less spoke favorably of the Junta.

Samak apparently met with his counterpart General Thein Sein and extended his consolation and sympathy to Myanmar's cyclone victims. Thailand even gave some aid. The prime minister donated $500,000 U.S. dollars on behalf of Thailand. He also gifted 50 satellite phones to the Myanmar side, as well as phone cards worth around $65,000 dollars. He expressed his wish to continue rendering assistance to the country's relief and resettlement endeavors in the aftermath.

But Samak said that the generals "are confident of dealing with the problem by themselves. There are no outbreaks of diseases, no starvation, no famine. They don't need experts, but are willing to get aid supplies from every country." This, of course, flies in the face of international media reporting as well as eyewitness accounts. By conservative accounts, less than one-third of the 1.5 million affected by the cyclone are receiving any kind of assistance.

The regime said the number of dead is around 46,000, but international NGOs think it's near 126,000 and, given the lack of food and shelter and medicine, that number is rising fast.

The Junta still refused to receive international help, and granted only a handful of visas to aid workers, while domestically, it largely blocks its own citizens from helping victims, including doctors from seeing patients. In other words, not only it does nothing, it adds to the crisis -- by more or less playing the role of Nargis 2.

That the Junta is universally condemned is understandable. But what about their neighbors? China, which sells arms and invests heavily in Myanmar and benefits from its natural resources, said nothing critical. Worse, sitting permanently on the UN council, it and Russia continue to block the UN from enacting the "responsibility to protect" doctrine, which says the international community has a duty to intervene when a nation can't or won't protect its citizens from crimes against humanity.

While it performs admirably at home with its own earthquake disaster, China makes little effort to change the fortune of its neighbor to the South. ASEAN -- Association of Southeast Asian Nations -- is even worse. If it has been embarrassed by its ineffectual but paranoid member, Myanmar, it is, as a political bloc, largely useless in times of real crisis. While in times of good economic growth, there has been plenty of talk of regional strength and cooperation, a boastfulness of economic tigers and the "Asian Way." But in the face of a real crisis of the magnitude of Cyclone Nargis, when millions of lives are at stake, suddenly eyes are downcast, and that old boastfulness is turned into muted apologies.

Thailand, especially, should have more sway than it claims. Historically while Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Malaysia and Burma suffered under colonial rule, Thailand alone in Southeast Asia developed in peace.

It has taken advantage of its neighbor's weaknesses, and logging from Cambodia and Myanmar and Laos have continued to benefit Thailand to this day, while the famous jade of Myanmar mostly end up in Thai jewelry stores. Electricity from Laos, rice from Vietnam, human labor from Myanmar, Thailand benefits from them all. Indeed, why get on the bad side of the corrupt Junta and risk losing a cozy relationship?

As Asean leaders prepare for an emergency meeting in Singapore where, incidentally, the Myanmese generals and their families routinely go to for medical treatment and to deposit their ill-earned cash -- it now seems too little, too late. As the victims of Nargis brace for another cyclone, politicians might as well drink champagne in Singapore, and tell the poor and dispossessed that, if they're out of rice, well, why don't they just eat cake?

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