It will be one month tomorrow since Cyclone Nargis swept across the Andaman Sea and crashed into Burma's Irrawaddy Delta. Initially the secretive junta said that just 351 people had lost their lives. The gap between their Orwellian pronouncements and reality soon became clear. More than 100,000 were estimated to be dead. Another two million were at risk.
A few days after the cyclone, I went to the Burmese monastery at Colindale in North London. I heard from many Burmese who had family in the area, and of their rage at the slow pace of the relief effort. Above all, they were desperate that we should not forget about Burma. Today, the plight of those affected by this disaster is slipping down the news agenda.
Burma's tragedy is a difficult story for the media – especially television – to bring to the outside world. While China has responded to the Wenchuan earthquake with remarkable openness, Burma has slammed the door shut. Night after night, we have been moved by the shocking images from China's quake zone – the mangle of concrete and corpses, the grieving parents, troops toiling to reinforce dams and rescue victims. And struck by the images of China's Prime Minister, Wen Jiabao, personally directing the relief effort and speaking frankly to both Chinese and foreign journalists.
What a contrast with Burma, where official television broadcasts show carefully choreographed footage of selected generals handing out aid to apparently grateful citizens and model blue tent villages with smiling faces. The regime has pressed ahead with a rigged referendum on its constitution, diverting desperately needed resources from coping with the disaster.
So a month after Burma's cyclone the first challenge is clear: to keep it in the news, and to keep the international spotlight focused on the plight of those trying to survive. The wave that followed the cyclone killed many, but a rising tide of global indifference could kill many more. The position on the ground remains dire. The UN estimates that only one in two of those affected have received aid. Last week a team from Médecins Sans Frontières, the international medical charity, found survivors who had not eaten for three days. Tens of thousands are struggling to survive without clean water, without food, without medical care and without shelter.
But if many more people die at this stage, it will not be because of Mother Nature. It will be because of the criminal negligence of the Burmese regime, and because the world – despite its fine words and grand meetings – will have failed the Burmese people in their hour of need. So what should be done?
First, the overriding priority remains access. The life-savers must be let into the country to save lives. In order of magnitude, this disaster is on a par with the Asian tsunami of 2004 – but this has occurred in one single country. Even if they wanted to, the Burmese authorities are just not equipped to mount such an exercise. Massive access for international disaster relief professionals is the only way to achieve that.
The regime's senior general, Than Shwe, promised the UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, when he visited Burma last week that such access would be granted. The early signs are that more visas are being granted. But incremental improvements week on week are not enough when tens of thousands of lives are hanging in the balance. The Burmese regime needs to provide full access now – with bases for international relief operations, and land, sea and air corridors supporting them. Ban Ki-moon should be ready to return to Rangoon to insist that the commitment that was made to him is honoured.
Second, it is vital that Burma's neighbours speak frankly to the regime about the need for urgent action. This is not a time for leisurely diplomacy. Asean's recent efforts appear to have had some effect, but they need to be maintained and increased. Gordon Brown should make a personal appeal to Premier Wen of China to speak directly to his Burmese counterpart and impress upon the regime the need to act with the sense of urgency and openness that China has shown.
If a country of China's weight and power can grasp the offered hand of help in the face of natural disaster, then surely Burma's leaders, he should say, should do likewise. More and more often, the path to solving major global problems runs through Beijing. Here is another such example, right on China's doorstep.
But it is not only China that should be encouraged to bring its influence to bear. I hope that India, too – which rightly aspires to a greater share in global leadership, and a seat on the Security Council – will do the same. And as Britain hands over the chairmanship of the UN Security Council to the US this month, the issue of Burma must be on the Council's agenda.
Third, we need to remember that this is a race against time. If, despite our efforts, the Burmese generals continue to stall, thousands of people will die whose deaths could have been prevented. So we need to keep options for more direct delivery of international aid on the table.
The fact that US and French warships – now joined by HMS Westminster – have been off the Burmese coast since the cyclone struck, practising a multinational disaster relief exercise has been a cruel irony. But it is also helping to focus minds in the Burmese regime. As one Rangoon resident told the FT last week: "Burmese feel like the pressure got to [Than Shwe]. It was [as] Teddy Roosevelt said: 'Speak softly and carry a big stick.' "
We should also make clear to the generals that if they continue to frustrate the delivery of aid to their dying people, they could end up answering for their actions before the International Criminal Court.
Finally, we need to continue to support the Burmese people in their struggle for political freedom. Last week Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma's democratic heroine, was sentenced to a further 12 months under house arrest. She is a symbol of the tragedy of Burma, but also its hope for a brighter tomorrow. Today, however, the priority is to save life. This is an issue that is beyond politics. It is about humanity. In the days to come the Government can count on the support of me and my party in straining every sinew to help the people of that beautiful but benighted country.
DEC Myanmar (Burma) Cyclone Appeal ( dec.org.uk; 0870 6060 900)
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