Myanmar's military rulers held elections aimed at solidifying their hold on power, while brazenly turning cyclone relief efforts into a propaganda campaign. In some cases, generals' names were scribbled onto boxes of foreign aid before being distributed.
Human rights organizations and dissident groups have bitterly accused the junta of neglecting disaster victims in going ahead with Saturday's referendum, which seeks public approval of a new constitution. Critics describe it as a sham.
Though international aid has started to trickle in — with two more planes organized by the U.N. World Food Program landing at Yangon's airport Saturday — almost all foreign relief workers have been barred entry into the isolated nation.
The junta said it wants to hand out all donated supplies on its own.
But with roads blocked and bridges submerged, reaching isolated areas in the hard hit delta has been made all but impossible. The military has only a few dozen helicopters, most small and old. It also has about 15 transport planes, few of which are able to carry massive amounts of supplies.
Other reports indicate there is little that the international community can do for the citizens affected by the cyclone in Myanmar:
As aid groups struggled to distribute supplies to cyclone victims despite government obstacles, Myanmar TV was broadcasting messages urging people to vote "yes" in a referendum that critics say would strengthen the military rule.
Activists demonstrate over the Myanmar referendum at the Myanmar Embassy in Bangkok on Friday.
The New York Times said it appeared that some resources for cyclone victims was diverted to the vote campaign. In some cases, generals' names were scribbled onto boxes of foreign aid before being distributed, according to the Associated Press.
A resident of Yangon said refugees seeking shelter in schools were evicted so the buildings could be used as polling places, the newspaper reported.
Is it time to consider a military invasion of Myanmar?
That's why it's time to consider a more serious option: invading Burma. Some observers, including former USAID director Andrew Natsios, have called on the U.S. to unilaterally begin air drops to the Burmese people regardless of what the junta says. The Bush Administration has so far rejected the idea — "I can't imagine us going in without the permission of the Myanmar government," Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Thursday — but it's not without precedent: as Natsios pointed out to the Wall Street Journal, the U.S. has facilitated the delivery of humanitarian aid without the host government's consent in places like Bosnia and Sudan.
A coercive humanitarian intervention would be complicated and costly. During the 2004 tsunami, some 24 U.S. ships and 16,000 troops were deployed in countries across the region; the mission cost the U.S. $5 million a day. Ultimately, the U.S. pledged nearly $900 million to tsunami relief. (By contrast, it has offered just $3.25 million to Burma.) But the risks would be greater this time: the Burmese government's xenophobia and insecurity make them prone to view U.S. troops — or worse, foreign relief workers — as hostile forces. (Remember Black Hawk Down?) Even if the U.S. and its allies made clear that their actions were strictly for humanitarian purposes, it's unlikely the junta would believe them. "You have to think it through — do you want to secure an area of the country by military force? What kinds of potential security risks would that create?" says Egelend. "I can't imagine any humanitarian organization wanting to shoot their way in with food."
So what other options exist? Retired General William Nash of the Council on Foreign Relations says the U.S. should first pressure China to use its influence over the junta to get them to open up and then supply support to the Thai and Indonesian militaries to carry out relief missions. "We can pay for it — we can provide repair parts to the Indonesians so they can get their Air Force up. We can lend the them two C-130s and let them paint the Indonesian flag on them," Nash says. "We have to get the stuff to people who can deliver it and who the Burmese government will accept, even if takes an extra day or two and even if it's not as efficient as the good old U.S. military." Egeland advocates that the U.N. Security Council take punitive steps short of war, such as freezing the regime's assets and issuing warrants for the arrest of individual junta members if they were to leave the country. Similar measures succeeded in getting the government of Ivory Coast to let in foreign relief teams in 2002, Egelend says.