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The Party of Death

Examining the boundless cruelty of the Burmese junta.

The generals are deaf. As everyone now knows, the regime was warned by weather forecasters in India two days before the cyclone arrived--five days before by forecasters in Thailand--and it refused to listen.

The generals hate their own people. The regime does not merely disdain them, it hates them, and the hate is cold, total and murderous. How else to explain the unimaginable sight of convoys being held by customs at the Thai border? Of planes filled with provisions and forbidden to land? How else to explain that while each hour counted, while each passing minute diminished the chances of finding survivors in the ruins of submerged villages in Bogale or Laputta, food and medicines that could save them were barely trickling in?

The generals are crazy. They are not just cruel but clinically insane and in fact paranoid, which is another key to understanding why this lunatic regime prefers letting its people die to opening its doors to Doctors Without Borders. It claims that the humanitarian workers are really spies, that they are entering the country only to destabilize and ruin it, that the packages from the U.N.'s World Food Program contain poisons more deadly than the toxins given off by the decomposing bodies floating in the Irrawaddy delta. These clinically insane people, these cretins, clearly believe these things.

The generals are racist. Suffice it to say that, yes, Burma is a postcolonial country whose paranoia can perhaps be explained by the fact that long ago it had to endure the miasma of racism's plague. Today it's the regime that is racist, that sees the white man, the Westerner, the American as its natural enemy, that in the purest xenophobic and thus racist tradition sees the foreigner as a germ, a corrupting agent, a virus.

The generals are monomaniacal. This racism, this craziness, also stems from their thinking only of themselves, of their own future and survival. The country is drowning: Two thousand square miles of rice fields are already underwater; the rare witnesses speak of swamps littered with cadavers, of putrid, polluted ground water and children shivering possibly from malaria or dengue fever. And the regime's only interest--incredibly--was the farcical referendum forced upon the people with the sole intention of further cementing the regime's position.

The regime is autistic. It lives hermetically sealed off and withdrawn from the world, having adopted the absurd notion of exterminating the people it is supposed to govern. Are 20,000 dead? ... 30,000? ... 100,000? Will it be 300,000 tomorrow--or more? The dictatorship does not care, nor is it keeping track.

Let there be no mistake: It doesn't even bother to lie, minimize, or cover up; these bodies were truly faceless and nameless when alive, so why would it be any different now that they are dead? The generals are happy about only one thing: the wisdom of the astrologers who persuaded them in November 2005 to abandon Rangoon and ensconce themselves in Naypyidaw, in a brand new capital in the heart of the jungle, far from the water and its tornados.

The generals stay focused, too. They are crazy, sure, and paranoid no doubt, but their reflexes remain intact, their responsiveness unerring. In the middle of the disaster, the regime reacted at the speed of light to a mutiny at the Insein prison in Rangoon, sending in soldiers they would not even consider deploying to help the homeless. According to reports, the soldiers promptly executed 36 of the mutinous prisoners.

The generals are mafialike. At the height of the cyclone's aftermath, when the World Food Program was begging them to let through a convoy carrying high-energy biscuits that could have fed up to 95,000 people, the generals said, "Sure, why not?"--only to confiscate the merchandise, probably to resell on the black market.

The regime is stingy. The $5 million it released for emergency aid in the first week following the cyclone is a thousandth of the annual revenue it receives from the sale of fossil fuels to foreign companies like Total--or, calculated another way, one-tenth of the value of the wedding gifts received by Thandar Shwe, the beloved daughter of Myanmar's generalissimo, Than Shwe.

Finally, the regime is grotesque. Yes, as always and in spite of the horror, it is profoundly, surreally grotesque. That is in any event what one feels when confronted by the image of this decorated imbecile with his dark sunglasses as he shouts on television--which no one can watch since there is no electricity--that "the situation is returning to normal."

It is rare to have a laboratory.

It is rare to see a dictatorship functioning in such a chemically pure manner.

Faced with this spectacle, this machine of death, hate and madness, one hesitates between sorrow, pity, a desire to see these assassins brought before an international criminal tribunal that could try these kinds of crimes, and, finally, nostalgia for the days when France created and imposed upon the world the right and the duty to intervene.

French philosopher and writer Bernard-Henri Levy is the author, most recently, of American Vertigo: Traveling America in the Footsteps of Tocqueville and Ce Grand Cadavre a la Renverse. Translated from the French by Sara Sugihara.