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Monday, May 12, 2008

Clinton's surprise appeal on campaign trail

LOS ANGELES — How much suffering must a nation and its people go through before everyone says enough is enough?

You could certainly ask that question of Sudan, which is relentlessly war-ravaged, or of North Korea, which is all but medieval-ized by a profoundly inept government. And you could certainly ask it of the ruling junta of Myanmar (also known as Burma).

To her immense credit, U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Hillary Clinton raised exactly that question in the course of her remarks last Tuesday night in Indiana after the primary election.

At a time when any other candidate wouldn't have even bothered to bring up the terrible human disaster in Burma, the former first lady, though fighting for her White House life against Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, urged her viewers and listeners to think of the fate of the many tens of thousands of Burmese either killed or left homeless by the horrendous cyclone the previous weekend.

It was difficult not to be touched by her unexpected appeal because there are no Democratic primary votes coming out of Burma!

There is not, in America, even much of a Burmese diaspora to proffer campaign cash — as is the case, for example, with the large and politically active Korean, Vietnamese, Indian, Japanese and Chinese communities. Thus Mrs. Clinton's call for compassion toward Burma was wholly unexpected and not obviously politically motivated.

There is perhaps a lot about the Clintons not to like. There is their frenzied, overarching ambition, their sometimes-sense of political entitlement, and their too-slick ability to change positions with the direction of the wind with barely a hair being blown out of place.

But on the list of their virtues is a large and oft-demonstrated capacity to demonstrate empathy and largess. If that enunciation of empathy is not one of the more admirable American — and human — virtues, then what is?

One hopes the Clintons will stay with the campaign to help besieged Burma even as they fight on to secure the Democratic nomination, a goal that seems increasingly out of reach.

The junta government in Burma should be informed of Sen. Clinton's magnanimous call for Americans to help, as we and so many other nations did after the terrible tsunami that blasted across Indonesia and much of the rest of Asia 3 1/2 years ago. The outpouring then was notable. So it could prove today.

Aid agencies across the world are prepared to go in and help. But they have to be let in quickly to be able to do their thing. Burma is as closed and nasty a place as North Korea; it is also as poorly governed. The leaders of both countries have a propensity for making amazingly unwise decisions.

Burma is a profoundly tragic basket case. Its bountiful land has more natural resources and potential than most countries on earth. And yet its government has ground this otherwise beautiful but sad country into dust.

The redoubtable Lee Kuan Yew characterized the whole Burma issue with pristine clarity last fall when professor Jeffrey Cole of the University of Southern California and I interviewed him at length. Most delightfully, we caught the feisty father of modern Singapore in high form — direct, unsparing and on-target.

What's wrong with Myanmar, we asked? Answered Lee, now 84: "These are rather dumb generals when it comes to the economy. How they can so mismanage the economy and reach this stage when the country has so many natural resources? It's stupid. . . The Chinese, they've tried, and, in fact, we have tried to talk them out of isolation. I tried but, you know, you've got really economically dumb people in charge.

"Why they believe they can keep their country cut off from — the world like this indefinitely — I cannot understand. It doesn't make sense."

This historic Asian figure's insights are as valid today as they were back in October. The generals must wake up and expedite all help from the outside world. Mother Nature made a call in the form of an unbelievably vicious and deadly typhoon, and the generals need to answer Nature's call with humility and wisdom. The world is ready to help.

You and I are ready to write out our modest checks. Millions of us — all together — can make a difference, help feed the starving people, house the families left homeless by the natural disaster and keep diseases from spreading.

Mrs. Clinton took a few ticks off her prime-time on the primary-campaign podium the other night to remind Americans of the suffering in Burma. It was a sincere and moving gesture. For their part, may the generals do right by their people, for once.

UCLA professor Tom Plate is a columnist syndicated in newspapers from Dubai to Seattle. © 2008 Tom Plate

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