The aftermath of the cyclone that has devastated the coastal regions of Myanmar and the projected loss of more than 100,000 lives is heartbreaking. It is a situation that is only made worse by the callous disregard of that country's rulers and their refusal to immediately and fully open the affected areas to the international community's relief efforts.
While some United Nations aid was allowed to trickle into the country today, the Myanmar government continued to delay visas for U.S. rescue teams five days after the devastating storm. U.S. ships with medical supplies, food, fresh water and care remain just a few hours offshore, Myanmar's military leaders deny this assistance to their own people in a decision certain to lead to more loss of life.
The regime's record on basic human rights has long been troubling. Last year, for instance, the International Committee of the Red Cross denounced the government of Myanmar for "major and repeated violations" of humanitarian law that included the forced labor of prisoners, murder and the destruction of food supplies and production along the strife-torn border with Thailand.
The move was highly unusual for the Red Cross, which traditionally has taken a far more discreet role in raising humanitarian issues with governments. However, the government's repeated restrictions on the aid organization had severely hampered, if not completely cut off, the delivery of humanitarian aid. As one International Red Cross official said, "The major concern is the fate of the population. It has proven impossible in recent years to have serious dialogue with the Myanmar authorities."
Those restrictions were, unfortunately, but a prelude to the crisis going on the country at this very minute. However, we cannot allow them to continue when the lives of innocent people hang so precariously in the balance. Any government has a responsibility to keep its citizens safe from natural disasters and outside threats and to respond decisively in times of crisis. Myanmar's military government is not above this basic human concept.
In the long term, our government must continue its sanctions against the rulers of Myanmar and encourage democratic reforms in that nation.
However, now is the time for the U.S. government to use every available diplomatic avenue to break down the barriers preventing aid from reaching those in dire need. It is also the time for individual Americans to act by contributing to the Red Cross disaster fund for Myanmar - and keeping those in peril in our prayers.