Evil in Burma

I have not said anything about the disaster in Burma, because I haven't had anything to say beyond "It's a disaster." And, that people should call the country Burma -- as the Bush Administration, Senators Clinton, McCain*, and Obama, and the Washington Post do -- rather than Myanmar, the term chosen by its junta and now accepted by CNN, NPR, and the New York Times.

My wife and I have been to Burma several times over the last twenty years. The first time was in the summer of 1988, around the time of the August 8 uprising and subsequent bloody repression of monks and students. The most recent was a little more than a year ago, a few days before another bloody round of repression. Like almost everyone who has been in the country, we have viewed its regime as a peculiarly pre-modern and backward form of evil. It does not seems capable of thoroughly-organized evil and repression, as in the old Soviet system. Rather it displays a benighted, superstitious, and almost unthinking indifference to whether its people suffer and die.

A minor illustration would be the decision that effectively bankrupted many Burmese people and helped bring on riots 20 years ago. This was the out of the blue decree that most denominations of Burmese currency, except those in "lucky" denominations like 45 and 90 kyat, would be valueless. The major illustration is of course its refusal to allow relief workers from around the world to spare tens of thousands of Burmese people disease and likely death in the wake of the cyclone.

Unfortunately, saying that the regime is evil doesn't automatically indicate how to help its unfortunate people. Invasions -- even for humanitarian purposes -- should be a very last resort. And without spelling out the whole reasoning, the U.S. is not in a great position now to be organizing an international invasion force, no matter how noble the cause. As the international frustrations of the last week have suggested, the main option is the unsatisfying one of putting together as much pressure from as many sources as possible, including China**, to force the regime away from its outrageous refusal to allow aid workers in.

(*About McCain: if it really is true that he has given a major convention role to a lobbyist who represented the Burmese junta, McCain needs to dump that person forthwith -- or be pilloried for not doing so every day between now and the election. Update: I see that the lobbyist, Doug Goodyear, has just quit the convention job. Next, maybe giving back the $300,000+ the generals paid him, to a human rights group? **About China: the latest outrage by the Burmese generals should not become the latest reason to threaten China with an Olympic boycott or disruption. The Chinese government has some influence over the Burmese regime -- but just some. It is better to make China part of the solution to this problem, by pointing out that a regime's refusal to save its own people is the strongest possible reason for an exception in China's "non-interference with other sovereign states" doctrine.)

A year ago, during the time of riots and crackdowns, I posted several pictures of what Rangoon looked like just before the fighting began. Here and after the jump, a few other pictures from that time.


1: Village on the Irrawaddy delta, south of Rangoon, showing why a storm surge would do such damage. (Click for larger version that shows pagoda):


2: Street scene in Rangoon:


3: Spiffed-up colonial-era office buildings, downtown Rangoon:

4: Workers wearing sarong-like Burmese longyi preparing to spiff up another building:

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.


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