The Burmese regime is not to blame for the powerful cyclone that struck the Irrawaddy Delta and Rangoon early this month, killing up to a quarter of a million people.
But it certainly will be to blame for the next wave of deaths if aid does not reach the survivors soon.
Indonesia, Thailand, Sri Lanka and India, the nations worst hit by the 2004 tsunami, are reasonably well-run countries that were able to help their own stricken citizens. They did not hesitate to welcome international aid. Burma (which got off lightly in 2004) is very different.
What sane government would block the entry of foreigners bringing exactly the kind of help that is needed?
The short answer is the generals who rule Burma. They are sitting atop a volcano, and they know it.
They almost lost power during the popular demonstrations led by Buddhist monks last year, and they are terrified that letting large numbers of foreigners in now might somehow destabilize the situation again.
But that’s not really a complete answer, for it raises the question of why Burma has fallen into the hands of such people for four and a half decades.
Thailand has the occasional short-lived military coup. Indonesia had its problems with Sukarno and Suharto, and Cambodia had the horrors of Year Zero.
But no other country in the region has been misgoverned so badly for so long.
It seems incredible now, when neighbouring Thailand has four times Burma’s per capita income, that at independence in 1948 Burma was the richest country in South-East Asia.
With huge resources, a high literacy rate and good infrastructure by the standards of the time (due to the British empire’s obsession with railways and irrigation projects), Burma seemed certain to succeed.
The problem is the legacy of the “Thirty Comrades,” a group of young Burmese students (average age 24) who went abroad in early 1941 seeking military training so they could come home and launch a rebellion against British rule.
Most of them were more or less Communist in orientation, and their original intention was to get training from the Chinese Communists.
However, by chance they fell in with the Japanese instead. They returned under the wing of the Japanese invaders as the “Burma Independence Army,” but switched sides in 1944 when it became clear that the Japanese would lose the war.
They combined the authoritarian traditions of the Imperial Japanese Army with the ruthless ideological certainty of militant Marxism, and they dominated the army of the new republic from its independence in 1948.
Rarely has such a small group dominated a whole country for so long.
The last of the Thirty Comrades, Ne Win, only retired in 1988, and continued to exercise great influence from behind the scenes as recently as 10 years ago.
Whatever ideology once motivated the army is long gone. Burma is now tied with Somalia for last place on Transparency International’s corruption index.
Its commanders are fully aware that most Burmese hate their rulers, and fear that the presence of large number of foreigners might serve as a spark for another popular uprising.
Even if another million and a half lives depend on the rapid delivery of emergency aid to the desperate survivors in the delta, as Oxfam fears, the army will severely restrict the entry of foreign aid personnel as long as it can resist the international pressure to let them in.
The army is half a million strong, so nobody is going to fight their way in. The Burmese, as usual, are on their own.
Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.