Editor's Note: The Burmese government's refusal to permit an effective relief effort for cyclone victims reflects the fundamental nature of a regime that has misgoverned the country for nearly half a century. Current news accounts prompt American Diplomacy's editor to recall his service as an American diplomat there in the 1970s.
Burma, now officially called Myanmar by its military regime, is much in the news because of the massive disaster produced by a cyclone that devastated its Irawaddy Delta region on May 3. This disaster is being compounded to the scale of an epic catastrophe and made truly tragic by the regime's refusal to cooperate with the international community in bringing relief to the victims.
-Rational people can only be shocked and amazed at how any government could be so, so ... What is the term? Cruel? Heartless? Paranoid? Stupid? All of these?
Even those of us who have served in Burma and have experienced its bizarre government have great difficulty in making sense out of this senselessness. Few of us, however, would find the regime's current behavior surprising.
An American presently in Burma with a non-government aid organization led off an Internet report not with information about the tens of thousands dead or the increasingly desperate situation of the hundreds of thousands homeless, but with a description of the constitutional referendum of May 10, which the regime insisted on proceeding with despite the cyclone (among other reasons because this date was chosen as auspicious by its astrologers). The draft constitution is designed to perpetuate the regime's power, so it mobilized its administrative and propaganda forces to produce a strong "yes" vote. And to assure the desired outcome, on the reverse side of the paper ballots the voters were required to provide their full name, father's name, national registration number, and signature!
This is an excellent illustration of the regime's character, which has changed little in the 46 years it has misgoverned the country.
I served in Burma as U.S. consul in Mandalay, 1975-76, and counselor for political and economic affairs at the embassy in Rangoon, 1976-78. All of us in the diplomatic community were amazed by the country's economic decrepitude and the paranoid perversity of the regime. "Things just can't get any worse," we told one another. But they always did.
Burma had been governed as a province of British India until 1937, and then as a separate colony until...