When dictators drive disasters

Burma's and Zimbabwe's strongmen have created humanitarian crises.

Not all iron fists are clumsy at the economic helm. Chile's economy did well under Pinochet's rule, and many Asian strongmen reigned over tiger economies. Not so today in Burma and Zimbabwe, where misrule is driving many toward starvation. The world should take more notice.

Both countries have top-ranked inflation rates. In Burma, the military's erratic policies have caused prices to rise 40 to 50 percent a year. In Zimbabwe, hyperinflation is in the four digits, pushing President Robert Mugabe to order police to arrest shopkeepers who raise prices on basic goods.

Food scarcity has driven people to desperate measures. In Zimbabwe, many more people poach wildlife, from hippos to squirrels, simply to eat. In Burma, many parents go without food for one or two days at a time to feed their children.

These are not nations that lack natural resources or suffer many natural disasters. Policy is to blame – the kind caused by leaders who make big economic mistakes as they cling to power. Fortunately, the international cry for action on these humanitarian crises is intensifying.

The International Committee of the Red Cross issued a rare public censure last week by accusing Burma's rulers of causing "immense suffering," partly as a result of abuse of farmers in minority areas. The UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Burma, Charles Petrie, says that "ill-informed and outdated socio-economic policies" in Burma (also known as Myanmar) have produced chronic malnutrition.

Zimbabwe appears closer to near collapse. The World Bank says the country has the fastest contracting peacetime economy. Such news has caused South Africa to intervene. But its foreign minister said last week that outside powers will find it "very difficult to rebuild an economy in a country where there is a serious divide and polarization."

Mr. Mugabe has beaten down his political opposition, leaving the nation's Roman Catholic church as his chief critic. Archbishop Pius Ncube has called for nonviolent street protests to bring down the government. That appears unlikely.

Rescuing people from hunger under a ruthless regime poses a moral dilemma for world diplomats. Mass starvation in North Korea in the 1990s was largely a result of policy, and many nations found it hard to send food aid – especially after some was found with the military.

Even more difficult is outside military intervention. In 1992, the United Nations approved a US-led force into Somalia to relieve starvation. But the UN is still debating an "international right" for such humanitarian intervention. Despite genocide in Darfur, it hasn't sent in forces without Sudan's permission.

These days, China's veto power in the Security Council remains an obstacle to pressure on dictatorships where China is doing business. China has beefed up trade with both Burma and Zimbabwe in its rapid pursuit for resources. That makes it difficult for the UN to act.

But more international pressure on these regimes is needed, even as food and other humanitarian aid continue to flow directly to the people. Neighboring nations especially must turn up the heat.

The ultimate solution is a return to democracy – not that democracies don't make economic mistakes, but they generally fare better in avoiding such trouble.

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