Yesterday, diplomats from 51 nations, led by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, held a one-day donor conference in Rangoon, the former capital of Burma. On Friday, the country’s junta said it would accept foreign assistance for desperate victims of Cyclone Nargis. About 78,000 Burmese have died according to official estimates. Another 56,000 are missing. Up to 2.4 million people need emergency aid. Previously, the nation’s generals had refused international help.
The conference began just hours after the expiration of a five-year detention order on Aung San Suu Kyi, the dissident leader who won the last elections, which were held in 1990. She never took office and has been under house arrest for more than 12 of the last 18 years. She is now kept inside her home, and there is no sign she will be released.
Ms. Suu Kyi’s house, interestingly enough, sits on the other side of a lake from the hotel where the conference was held. Even though the participants could see her home, the subject of her detention did not come up during the gathering. “I feel also very much concerned and troubled by not being able to address completely this issue,” said Ban Ki-moon, referring to Suu Kyi’s detention. Completely, Mr. Secretary-General? You did not raise the issue at all when you met the junta’s leader, Senior General Than Shwe.
The tragedy in Burma is not that Nargis struck–even all-powerful generals cannot physically move their nation to a more hospitable location. The tragedy is that so many people died because the generals not only insisted on keeping their society closed but also hindered internal relief efforts and hoarded aid.
It is certainly right for the international community to help the Burmese and it is probably correct not to condition aid on the release of any individual. Yet not to have said anything at all, especially in a public forum, is going too far in the other direction. For all the good the conference did, it nonetheless helped legitimize Burma’s political system, the source of so much misery.
Not everyone is so silent, however. Laura Bush has spoken out passionately on the issue of Burma. So here’s a suggestion for Mr. Ban. Until he finds his voice, perhaps he should let the First Lady take over the UN’s Burmese portfolio. After all, she knows what the real issue is.