Obstacles of shadows

Even before the rains hit Burma, the referendum of May 10 was looming as an assault on democratic values. Then the savagery of Cyclone Nargis guaranteed this poll would go down in history as not only one of the most undemocratic, but surely the most poorly timed. It will be remembered as the moment when the Burmese military reached the tipping point of its own demise.

Unsurprisingly, the military junta is not predisposed to being forthright about its impending downfall. More of a surprise is the fact that the international community allowed this reprehensible poll as the regime sought ways to secure its own future at the expense of ordinary Burmese traumatised by Nargis. The international monitors we called for were not present. The delay in the poll we asked for, and indeed expected, did not occur.

This is disappointing, yet those many Burmese working for a democratic Burma have so much to be dismayed about. Many have lost family members. Many have lost their homes. Many are ill, reeling under the myriad attacks of disease and impending famine. Many farmers have lost crops and livelihoods, causing a deadly crisis not only for themselves but also for those in the cities who rely on their produce.

In the face of this flattened, sodden country, dotted with corpses and destruction, the junta and its thugs have sought only to mine selfish gains for themselves. As aid begins to move into Burma - and even that was absurdly delayed as politicians ran their slide rules of personal advancement over the lives of others - reports have emerged that portions of it are being sold on the open market by government networks.

Of Burma's 54 million people, we estimate that 10% are in critical danger and up to half - in and around the Irrawaddy delta - face disease and hunger. The UN has stated the death toll may reach 100,000. If they were victims of warlords taking a country hostage, it is likely few would have the delicate concerns of state sovereignty in mind when devising a solution - especially if the country had the strategic and economic value of Burma. And if, moreover, such a war had two sides, with policy lines set straight and true like UN bureaucrats like them, then surely lines in the sand would be drawn.

Natural disasters, however, do not seem to provoke that sort of can-do, quick-fix spirit. War, it seems, is an easy game compared to the geostrategic trials faced by those seeking to bring international aid to Burma. The US, for instance, plunged into Iraq with less concern for protocol than has been expressed by policymakers in Washington and at the UN for centuries-old concepts of state rights and the inviolability of national borders.

In the case of Burma, such meek and ill-founded opinions have cost lives. Worse, they have cost future lives as the military regime remains in place and in control. This is no time for drawing pretty shapes on a map, or for finding squared-off, bureaucratised solutions to fit the round hole of disaster that exists in post-Nargis Burma. This is a time for action. The international community must run through the weak barriers thrown up by a regime taking advantage of the international community's propensity to twiddle its thumbs in the face of a crisis.

These are obstacles made of shadows, that will crumble as soon as they are challenged and someone has the courage to push through the aid the Burmese desperately need - over, around or through the military regime. International precedent may well be set, but no one in Burma needs a history lesson. The military can't handle this crisis, and there is a crying need for those who can.

Dr Thaung Htun, the UN representative for Burma's government in exile.