TOPICS: Prising Burma’s door open

Guardian staff writers

China on May 18 suspended the Olympic torch relay as it declared three days of national mourning for the earthquake victims. When the torch starts moving again it will be in a different atmosphere from the one that bedevilled its path through western capitals. China has not only earned the sympathy of the world for the earthquake that devastated Sichuan, but also its respect (its actions in Tibet notwithstanding). China and its soldiers showed they had learned from their history in handling disasters and could now respond to the suffering of their citizens in the same way as any other country.

Not so Burma: 17 days after Cyclone Nargis struck the Irrawaddy delta, a senior UN envoy was still hammering on the junta’s door, pleading for access. The mission of John Holmes, the UN undersecretary general for humanitarian affairs, comes after the junta’s leader, General Than Shwe, refused two calls and letters from the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon. With anything up to 200,000 dead or missing, 2.5 million survivors without proper food, shelter, drinking water or sanitation, and 30,000 children under the age of five facing acute malnourishment, such behaviour invites the use of force. Every day that passes makes a second wave of death, brought about by hunger and disease, more likely.

The UK’s Foreign Office minister Lord Malloch-Brown claimed Sunday to be making headway with Burmese ministers, predicting they would make dramatic steps to open up, by allowing Chinese, Indian, Thai and Indonesian partners to transship aid and land it directly in the delta. Foreign ministers from 10 countries of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) are due to hold a disaster meeting today. The hope is that they will create a leadership through which western aid will be funnelled. Airdrops are ineffective, offering survival only for the fittest. Gordon Brown on Sunday kept the use of airdrops on the table, but the reality is that more will be achieved if a deal to transship aid is brokered.

The involvement of ASEAN is appallingly late, and when this emergency is over its leading countries should reflect on their responsibility for what is happening in Burma, which is one of its member states. South-east Asia has tsunami and cyclone watches, but ASEAN, whose countries suffer frequent disasters, does not feel it has the political authority to persuade one of its members to respond to an overwhelming humanitarian crisis.

If ASEAN does break the junta’s door down, it should not make the mistake of dealing with the emergency and then walking off. First, the size of the disaster requires a massive aid operation. Only 20% of the 2.5 million survivors have so far been reached by aid. Second, the area will need long-term aid. The stricken area is Burma’s rice bowl and, as Save the Children warned, the cyclone has swept away any chances that farmers will sow seeds in time for monsoon harvest. Burma faces critical shortages of food for months. Once in, the aid operation should stay in.