WASHINGTON--Myanmar has given us one of the most admirable women alive, Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, and the world's most repugnant regime. Until May 2, the military government led by army chief Than Shwe was competing for that title with Zimbabwe's racist tyrant, North Korea's lunatic autocrat and Cuba's bumbling Castro brothers. But then Cyclone Nargis happened--and the junta seized the opportunity to edge ahead of its rivals.
It is hard to say what was worse: concealing the magnitude of the cyclone that was about to hit the Irrawaddy Delta region from the population and making no preparations, even though the meteorological system had given the government 48 hours advance notice; grossly lying about the number of victims once the tidal rise swept a vast swath of the southern part of the country; denying foreign relief agencies access to the country and shunning help from other governments for days; forbidding civilians to distribute what little aid was available because that responsibility was solely in the hands of the soldiers. Or going ahead with the referendum designed to ratify a constitution that took 14 years to write, all of whose articles can be summed up in four words: We will rule forever.
Many people, including Myanmar's generals, have alluded to the incompetence of the U.S. government in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 by way of comparison. But there is no real comparison. The Katrina disaster was the unintentional product of bureaucratic government. The Myanmar catastrophe is the result of a political mind-set--that is, of cold-blooded decisions aimed at protecting the military government from the threat of instability. The same thinking drove decisions in 1988 and in 2007 that resulted in the massacre of unarmed civilians, including Buddhist monks, because they wanted free elections.
The military has ruled Myanmar, also known as Burma, since 1962. The regime has gone through various phases, including Gen. Ne Win's "Burmese Way to Socialism," which left a country endowed with abundant natural resources in a state of utter ruin, and, later, a more Latin American-type system in which the economy is partly owned by government associates or officials. Mass migration to Thailand and the export of commodities such as oil, gas and rice have served to relieve social pressures.
In four and a half decades, the junta has made only one mistake—to allow relatively free elections in 1990. Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy won them by a landslide. The junta disregarded the result and, learning from its mistake, never allowed the daughter of the nation's independence hero and her closest advisers to live in freedom again. As long as Myanmar's next-door neighbors--especially China, Thailand and India--were kept happy with a consistent supply of commodities, and as long as there was no danger that civil unrest could spill over the various borders, the generals had carte blanche from the rest of Southeast Asia to do as they pleased.
Which is exactly what led to this month's colossal loss of life. A regime so paranoid as to have moved the capital north a few years ago because soothsayers had predicted that a natural disaster followed by civil unrest would strike Rangoon, the traditional capital, could not allow the population to be gripped by a fear greater than the fear of repression. Any civilian commotion is a threat to a regime that owes its rule to the use of force. Hence the full information was kept, and continues to be kept, from the population at large, and civilians were prevented from organizing relief efforts directly.
No government, whether democratic or dictatorial, is immune from natural disaster. And a catastrophe is a challenge that no organization as vertical and as pachydermic as government can respond to with agility. But a government that is not accountable to anyone and does not allow any form of decentralized structure to function, lest it become an embryonic civil society and debilitates the state, is a recipe for what amounts to mass murder in the event of a natural calamity.
The worst famines of the 20th century were not caused by the elements--or lack thereof. They were caused by governments in the Soviet Union, China, Vietnam, North Korea, Nigeria and other countries. The Myanmar government's conduct in the last few weeks may soon rank among the worst tragedies in living memory caused by people obsessed with power.
Alvaro Vargas Llosa, author of "Liberty for Latin America," is the director of the Center on Global Prosperity at the Independent Institute.
By Alvaro Vargas Llosa