Leading article: Life and death in the shadow of a vile regime

Natural disasters kill people. But how many die is often determined by factors which are not so arbitrary, nor indeed so natural. According to the Burmese authorities, 22,980 people have been confirmed dead in the massive cyclone which hit that country last weekend, and another 42,119 are missing. International aid workers fear the death toll could easily rise to 100,000 and the UN is talking of more than a million people in need of emergency relief. That the figures are so unclear six days after the event is itself a terrible indictment. By this stage a clear picture of the challenge ahead should be emerging. But the wilful delays by the Burmese military in allowing in both disaster management experts and supplies of emergency food, blankets and tents is unforgivable.

More people can die in the first few days after a natural disaster than perish in the event itself. That is because corpses pollute the water supply and spread infectious diseases which worsen by the day. With no shelter, sanitation, clean water contaminated by seawater and not much food, this disaster could turn into a catastrophe. The nature of the response in the first few hours and days is vital.

History shows that whether people live or die is often determined by government policies. In the terrible famines in Bengal in 1943 and in Ethiopia in 1973, and again in 1984, an overall shortage of food was not the problem; what killed people was government policies on movement of people and food stocks – and the workings of the free market – which switched the available food away from poor hungry people to those who could afford it. Millions died.

So too in Burma it is the behaviour of the military dictatorship which will kill people. The isolationist military regime which has terrorised Burma since it seized power in 1962 will not care one jot. Rather it fears what else an influx of outsiders will bring. The relief effort after the 2004 tsunami brought change in Aceh where the massive international presence was one of the factors that persuaded the Indonesian government and rebels to bring their long conflict to an end. Political change came too in Pakistan after large numbers of foreigners were allowed into Kashmir after the earthquake there in 2005.

Burma is ripe for change. The baseline condition of its people is miserable and yet they presently receive less aid per head than any of the world's poorest countries. Last year's pro-democracy protests by Buddhist monks were the most serious threat to the military regime for two decades. The last thing the generals now want is an influx of foreign aid officials and journalists to upset the equilibrium just as it is about to hold a controversial referendum on the new constitution it has drafted. Many observers have already condemned that as a sham. Letting in a huge influx of foreigners ahead of the poll could fuel more criticism of their political reforms.

It is no solution to say just dump the food in Rangoon airport and let the military regime distribute it, even ignoring the risk that the Army would siphon it away from those who really need it. Burma lacks the trucks, boats and fuel to get the aid to the people who need it. The troops, so readily in evidence to suppress any pro-democracy demonstrations, have been notable by their absence. They do not have the skills or equipment to rebuild the destroyed roads and bridges. Much of the delta is normally only accessible by boat. An effective relief operation needs people with experience of managing a disaster this big and who know how to keep aid moving. All this the Burmese military regime understands full well. We must hope for the sake of the victims of this disaster, that its leaders, for once, follow the humane course, and allow the aid agencies full access.