Recently, horrific natural disasters have been followed by moves towards political reconciliation. In the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami that devastated Aceh, a province in Indonesia, the Indonesian government and separatist rebels moved toward a peace process, which has resulted in the end of decades of conflict there. In Pakistan, the 2005 Kashmir earthquake relief efforts helped soothe tensions, at least temporarily, between Islamabad and Delhi. Similarly, after the massive 1999 earthquake in Turkey, the nation's longtime enemy, Greece, quickly pledged assistance, helping lead to warmer relations between the two countries.
So when Myanmar--formerly Burma--was devastated by a cyclone this weekend (10,000 are feared dead and large swathes of the nation's largest city, Yangon, are destroyed), some may have taken the slightest bit of comfort in predicting that perhaps this, finally, would bring about a change in the political situation there. The military government, which has run the nation since 1962 and is known for its reclusiveness and xenophobia--it lives in a bunkered capital in the middle of nowhere--issued an appeal for international aid, possibly showing a sign of openness. Indeed, Thailand has already announced plans to airlift relief supplies to its neighbor.
Alas, any glimmer of hope is likely to be snuffed out soon. Unlike other past examples of disasters sparking change, the oppressive Myanmar government has shown that nothing, not even massive death, will lead it to consider reforms. After all, coastal Burma also suffered untold destruction in that same 2004 tsunami, but the junta essentially refused to release accurate information, apparently underplaying the death toll by many multiples, and stifling relief efforts. And even though the junta is now allowing in international agencies, history suggests that it'll dispose of them soon--in the past five years, the junta has tossed out virtually every multinational agency, apparently out of the fear that they would somehow subvert the government.
Worse, the vast loss of life in other parts of the country has never seemed to bother the repressive junta, which has to respond far less to public opinion than the governments of Indonesia, Pakistan, or Turkey, which at least have democratic institutions. What's more, unlike those countries, the junta receives minimal western investment, and cares little about its public image, so it won't care about international outcry if it tosses relief agencies out of the country in a few weeks.
In the eastern part of the country, where an ongoing civil war has raged since the mid-1940s, the junta recently has waged a brutal, scorched earth campaign--burning villages, killing thousands of civilians, and raping a terrifying number of others. In the construction of petroleum pipelines and other large infrastructure projects, the junta is reported to have used forced labor, essentially working average Burmese to death. And as the world saw, when thousands of Burmese monks, among the most respected figures in this devoutly Buddhist society, protested in the streets of Yangon last year, the military had no qualms about attacking even them. Following the "Saffron Revolution" crackdown, the junta then organized large-scale round-ups of monks at leading monasteries, round-ups that mostly went unnoticed in the Western press, which has minimal access to Myanmar--suggesting that after the cyclone, reporters will not be able to follow up either. This weekend's tragedy won't relieve any of the country's political problems; it has only made the suffering of Burmese citizens more acute.
Joshua Kurlantzick is a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace's China Program.