Almost 30 years ago, my editor dispatched me to Cambodia to cover the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime and the resulting refugee holocaust. The images of babies with swollen bellies and only a few days left to live, emaciated and lethargic adults dying from typhoid, cholera or worse, have hung with me to this day.
Just now, three decades later, the United Nations and the Cambodian government are staging a genocide tribunal for several surviving Khmer Rouge leaders. Nearly two million Cambodians died during the Khmer Rouge reign - most of them from disease and starvation.
One country away, in Burma, also called Myanmar, more than one million survivors of Cyclone Nargis have now gone without any food, medicine, clean water or sanitation services for more than four weeks. Though military dictators there will not allow anyone to see, babies' bellies are beginning to swell, and listless adults are slipping away, victims of cholera, diphtheria or worse. Tens of thousands are likely to die - most of them from disease and starvation.
The fault for all of this lies squarely on Gen. Than Shwe's shoulders. It is past time that the United Nations started planning a genocide tribunal for Shwe, the Burmese leader, and his fellow thugs. The case is clear, the verdict already known.
In Cambodia, prosecutors have had to dig through musty, incomplete records and rely on testimony from feeble, octogenarian witnesses. In Burma, all the evidence prosecutors would need is in the newspapers and on TV. Put together, it displays a callous disregard for human life so stunning that it would likely embarrass Kim Jung Il, Robert Mugabe - perhaps even Omar al-Bashir, the president of Sudan. Here's the dossier:
On May 23, Shwe promised Ban Ki-moon, the U.N. secretary-general, that he would finally allow aid workers to deliver food and medicine to cyclone victims - three weeks after Cyclone Nargis struck. The next day, Shwe ordered his troops to sweep through the Irrawaddy Delta and evict cyclone victims from the few buildings that remained standing so they could be used as polling places. Then soldiers pushed and prodded hungry and sick Burmese to vote in a sham referendum intended to extend Shwe's time in office. On May 25, soldiers ordered cyclone victims to dismantle makeshift shelters they had put up near main roads, to escape the floodwaters. The soldiers said they were unsightly.
Meantime, the International Red Cross reported that rivers and ponds in the delta remained clotted with corpses. On Tuesday, UNICEF noted that Burmese children were drinking from these fetid ponds. They had no other source of water. Even before the storm, Save the Children said it had identified 30,000 malnourished children in the affected areas. Many of them, the group said a few days ago, "may already be dying for lack of food."
In Yangon, meanwhile, when Ban proposed a donors' conference for reconstruction aid, Shwe's government suddenly perked up and said Burma would be delighted to host it. Save our people, no. Give us money - sure!
Representatives from more than 50 countries attended the conference. Thein Sein, the Burmese prime minister, told them he would be happy to take their money. As for finally allowing aid workers in, he said, "we will consider allowing them in if they wish to engage in rehabilitation and reconstruction work."
The government's relief operations have come to an end, he insisted. Burma is shifting its focus to rebuilding and reconstruction. So much for Shwe's promise to Ban. So much for 100,000 sick and dying people. In the following days, Burma has admitted only a tiny trickle of additional aid workers.
For weeks, Shwe had refused even to take Ban's phone calls. Finally Ban decided simply to show up. So Shwe ordered his men to set up a Potemkin refugee camp complete with crisp green tents and shiny new cookware. When government officials took Ban there a week later, reporters noticed that cooking-oil jars remained sealed, and store labels were still affixed to frying pans.
The New York Times reported that soldiers had used dynamite to rid the streams of unsightly corpses in the areas Ban visited.
Now, a month after the storm, the United Nations estimates that fewer than half of the sick and starving cyclone victims have received even the first dollop of aid, while the generals insist that it's time to give up on the victims and start putting up new buildings.
If the world were a just place, the first building project would be a prison to hold Shwe and his fellow thugs - after their genocide trial.