Burma's military has long tried to rally support for national isolation and its harsh rule with calls for patriotic self-sufficiency. But its legitimacy eroded after protests in 1988 and 2007, and may now collapse with a feeble response to a storm that ranks as one of the world's deadliest disasters.
Last weekend, a tropical cyclone with 120-mile-per-hour winds and a 12-foot water surge left more than 22,000 Burmese dead – in part because of little forewarning by inward-looking Army generals. Stuck in an ideology of extreme xenophobia and state control, they have also been slow, if not reluctant, to allow the kind of emergency foreign aid that normally keeps more lives from being lost after such a calamity.
As many Burmese now note, a brutalizing Army is very efficient in shooting Buddhist monks who lead mass street protests against the regime – as happened in September – but has been sluggish to rescue the storm's hundreds of thousands of survivors and provide quick humanitarian aid.
The contrast with Indonesia's response to the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami could not be more stark. There, after 220,000 people were killed by a giant wave, an elected president welcomed massive outside assistance, including vital aid from the American Navy, with little fear of foreign meddling.
Burma's despots must now be told by the rest of the world that extreme self-sufficiency and isolation is no way to run a modern country that can cope with huge catastrophes, let alone bring prosperity. First lady Laura Bush said as much Monday: "The response to this cyclone is just the most recent example of the junta's failures to meet its people's basic needs."
Long protected by China from any rebuke at the UN, Burma's rulers have suppressed freedom and left their 52 million people in poverty. Many are forced to live in villages along the southern deltas, left vulnerable to cyclones.
At the least, Burma's leader, General Than Shwe, knows he's in a pickle with rising resentment at home and calls for reform from abroad. He's concocted a referendum, set for May 10, on a constitution aimed to create a "discipline-flourishing democracy" in 2010.
The document, however, is loaded with provisions to keep a strong hand for the military and to lock out the lead opposition figure, Aung San Suu Kyi, who's been under house arrest for two decades. In effect, the military wants to imitate the faux democracy of former Indonesian strongman Suharto.
The junta's response to the cyclone only reinforces a street-level campaign to vote against the proposed constitution. The regime may further expose its ruthlessness by forcing people to vote yes or simply doctoring the results. (In storm areas, voting has been postponed.)
Since 1988, hundreds have been killed trying to bring back democracy to Burma (or Myanmar). Now many more are dead because a lack of democracy and openness has led to weak government response to a disaster. In the days ahead, the generals may allow in just enough foreign aid to quell any protests but not enough to abrade their rule.
The world needs to find a way to use its aid to create a real path to democracy in Burma, the kind that reacts well when its citizens cry out for help.