Leading article: The biggest tragedy for Burma

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While the grim death toll from the earthquake in China is at least relieved by pictures of survivors pulled from the wreckage and a relief effort that has been massive, organised and immediate, the situation in Burma goes from bad to worse. To the catastrophes of flooding and starvation is now being added the scourge of disease, as the first signs of what could well prove an epidemic of cholera are reported. Unless a massive international aid effort is launched from this very moment, the number of deaths in the Irrawaddy delta could rise from the present 78,000 reported dead and missing to twice this figure and even more.

The pity of all this is that many, if not most, of these deaths will have been avoidable. Burma's misfortune has been that it has suffered a natural disaster. Its tragedy has been to have a government so callous and so suspicious of the outside world that it has refused to open doors to the offers of aid flooding in.

And still it procrastinates, cheerily declaring the first phase of the emergency "over", and refusing to sanction foreign involvement in the rescue effort. Of those affected by Cyclone Nargis, only around 20-30 per cent have yet been reached according to those aid agencies allowed to work there.

In retrospect – as was argued by some at the time – it might have been better to have launched a unilateral rescue operation as soon as the intransigence of the Burmese generals became apparent. An air drop of supplies, and even the use of small boats to deliver assistance, would have been shambolic. It might well have aroused the ire of the government, but it might at least have helped some of the desperate civilians.

Is it too late now? Not necessarily. There are certainly signs of a change in the attitude of the Burmese government, not least because it senses the anger of its own people and because it has become afraid that, if the next rice planting season is missed in this fertile part of the country, the effect would be felt even in the capital. A group of diplomats is to be taken to the region today. Asean is due to meet in the next few days. UN and international pressure on the Burmese junta is intensifying. The junta's declaration of victory might be a face-saver for handing the problem over to outside help. But if nothing is done over the weekend, the time will have come for the international community to move from words to deeds.

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