More heat than of the tropical kind can be felt in Burma's capital these days. Saffron-robed Buddhist monks still walk door-to-door with begging bowls, asking for food. The unemployed still sit idly in tea shops. But Burma's military rulers are probably sweating a bit more in their uniforms.
Burma (Myanmar) has suddenly risen up the list of antidemocratic nations needing acute outside attention. In separate but quickly converging actions, the United Nations secretary-general and the Bush administration are trying to throw klieg lights on the suppression of human rights and democracy in a nation too long seen as a strategic backwater.
The US, as part of President Bush's campaign since January to create more democracies, wants the Security Council to cite Burma for its deplorable human rights practices. UN chief Kofi Annan, meanwhile, has elevated Burma to high-level UN review along with Sudan. He also hopes to visit the Southeast Asian nation soon to talk to both the military brass and the confined leader of the democracy movement, Aung San Suu Kyi.
His concern was heightened by a recent report, commissioned by former Czech President Vaclav Havel and retired South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu (both men are Nobel peace laureates, as is Ms. Suu Kyi), which found that Burma's human-rights violations meet the criteria for some sort of UN intervention.
Twice since 1962, the military has upended democracy in Burma to keep power for itself. The last time was 15 years ago, when Suu Kyi's party won a fair election only to see the results ignored. She's been under house arrest off and on for 10 years. Meanwhile, more than thousand pro-democracy dissidents remain in jail and reports of systemic atrocities against Burma's ethnic minorities keep mounting. The nation's xenophobic generals prefer to largely isolate their country and deprive their 50 million people.
The UN staff's interest in Burma is driven by a desire not to repeat past mistakes when the UN didn't act soon enough in major humanitarian crises. The US, post-Sept. 11, realizes that unstable nations like Burma might become terrorist breeding swamps, and thus must be drained of dictators.
Too bad, though, that China has befriended Burma. The two neighbors share growing economic and military ties, not to mention similar authoritarian rule. Just as China has blocked tough UN action on Darfur in Sudan, where the Chinese have big oil interests, it now could shelter Burma, too.
The Bush administration has helped nudge successful moves toward democracy elsewhere, such as Ukraine. And last week Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte laid out a new mission for the country's 15 intelligence agencies: to "bolster the growth of democracy and sustain peaceful democratic states."
In his meeting with China's leader on Nov. 19, Mr. Bush should clearly say the US has a moral and strategic interest in democratizing Burma, and that China should not block UN action. This sort of practical idealism by the US is being waged on many fronts, not all successful. But Burma cries out loudly for the UN to act.