Can Ban Ki-moon Help Burma's Cyclone Victims?

Than Shwe is a hard man to connect with. Burma's reclusive strongman doesn't take phone calls or answer letters—even when the person attempting to strike up a correspondence is none other than United Nations General-Secretary Ban Ki-moon. Since a devastating cyclone slammed Burma on May 2, Ban has tried repeatedly to speak with the country's top general, and the rebuffs he's suffered mirror those of the various humanitarian agencies that have rallied—thus far, largely in vain—to prevent Burma's worst natural disaster in living memory from becoming a man-made catastrophe caused by a botched rescue. But Ban is persistent; on Thursday he landed in Burma in an effort to engage the country's illusive despot and pry open the door to international assistance. "We will be able to overcome this tragedy," he said as he began a four-day visit.

Ban's efforts have already paid small dividends. Before his departure from New York on Tuesday, the U.N. announced that Burma had agreed to allow 10 World Food Program helicopters to ferry aid from the former capital Rangoon to hard-hit towns on the Irrawaddy delta. And on Monday, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) won Burma's approval to create a "coordinating mechanism" for international relief. "We have to view this as a positive," said a senior U.N. official in the region. "Though whether it is a breakthrough depends on our ability to craft a face-saving way for [Burma's generals] to swing the door wide open."

That, in essence, is Ban's mission. He must win the trust of Burma's military government, establish smooth cooperation with ASEAN and determine what, if any, role American, French and British naval forces scrambled into the region last week might play. It's a race against time. Although it's been 20 days since Cyclone Nargis slammed ashore, the few foreign-aid organizations that have managed to insert skeleton crews into Burma estimate that 75 percent of storm survivors, or some 2.2 million people in the delta, have yet to receive significant assistance. The humanitarian group Oxfam estimates the death toll at more than 100,000 and warns that poor disaster response could multiply that body count many times over.

Burma is arguably the toughest challenge Ban has faced since taking the helm at the United Nations 18 months ago. For starters, today's relief effort can't be divorced from last September's violent suppression of widespread antigovernment demonstrations led by thousands of Buddhist monks. That crackdown elicited harsh criticism from many of the same countries now clamoring to join the relief effort, a fact that isn't lost on Burma's ever-suspicious generals, who call the country Myanmar. Ban must convince them that international relief—should they countenance it—won't be aimed at toppling their regime. "Cyclone Nargis is certainly Ban's early test as U.N. secretary-general," says Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political scientist at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok. "Millions of lives are riding on his trip."

As does harmony within the U.N.'s all-powerful Security Council. Permanent members China and Russia are disinclined to interfere in the country's internal politics, however repressive or abhorrent. Yet France, Britain and the United States have taken the position that, under extreme circumstances, it might be permissible to deliver aid to threatened communities without the junta's approval. Last week, French U.N. Ambassador Jean-Maurice Ripert said the military government's failure to assist storm victims might constitute "a true crime against humanity." British Prime Minister Gordon Brown told the BBC on Sunday "as far as air drops are concerned we rule nothing out."

The language is significant because, in 2005, the United Nations pledged it would intervene to prevent "crimes against humanity" like the Rwanda genocide or sectarian massacres in Bosnia in the 1990s. International-law experts are divided over whether the new doctrine, known as "responsibility to protect," could apply to a government that abandons its citizens after a natural disaster. After visiting Rangoon last weekend as part of an international team of diplomats, Britain's Asia minister, Mark Malloch-Brown, cited as possible justification for U.N. intervention "massive outbreaks of disease and secondary deaths, or if [the ASEAN-led aid plan] gums up and no aid is delivered."

Even more than Ban's, ASEAN's prestige and reputation is riding on a good outcome in Burma. Long derided as an ineffectual talk shop, the regional grouping admitted Burma to its fold in 1997 on the logic that engagement with the generals who run the country would temper their behavior. To its neighbors' profound embarrassment, the junta has grown more repressive, not less, over time. "Let's put it this way," says Ooi Kee Beng, a fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore. "If ASEAN does not show enough initiative and [ease] the crisis, then it would lose all credibility. It has no choice."

Critics of the initiative say ASEAN's diplomacy has been way too drawn out. "[Their attitude is] let's have a meeting and hold hands and hope this all goes away," says a Western official in the region. "It's sad that a lot of people who live far away were quick to respond—not just the U.S. but Europe and Japan—while the association that is supposed to take care of Southeast Asia is just coming to the table." Simon Tay, chairman of Singapore's Institute of International Affairs, credits ASEAN for extracting permission to coordinate the international relief effort, though he hastens to add that more headway is imperative if lives are to be saved. "It was an achievement to open the door," he says. "It will be a second and larger challenge to go in thru that door and do the heavy lifting for relief."

Sadly, the doorway remains too narrow even for aid already agreed to. In one example, Singapore sent its first medical team into Burma—a crew of four doctors and eight nurses--on Thursday, three full days after Burma said it would welcome such assistance. And the 10 helicopters Burma agreed to take from the U.N. won't likely be flying until the weekend because various technical issues are still being negotiated. With so many people still struggling for survival on the delta, every delay in reaching them can be measured in lost lives. "The rule of thumb is that 10 days is the point at which things significantly shift," says a Western relief coordinator currently organizing aid for Burma. "After that secondary fatalities can radically increase due to cholera, typhoid and other diseases."

Ban knows the grim math. ASEAN leaders do, too. On Sunday they will co-host a multilateral donors' conference in Rangoon in an effort to raise the billions Burma needs for recovery and, as Ban put it Thursday, coordinate the flow of aid "in a more systematic and organized way." If the U.N. chief's mission comes up short, the issue could quickly shift from how best to work with one of the world's most repressive governments to the unprecedented challenge of staging a multilateral humanitarian intervention in defiance of the recipient nation's own government.