BANGKOK, Thailand — It is a life-or-death question: If millions of people are at risk, is it acceptable to sit on the sidelines and watch an undemocratic and unprepared regime mismanage a crisis?
With the death toll climbing, foreign leaders and international aid organizations are faced with an increasingly urgent need to balance respect for Myanmar's sovereignty with a moral responsibility to help its population.
Just hoping the government in Myanmar, also known as Burma, will do the right thing may not be enough. And though it appears unlikely they will be called in, several military powers are capable of intervening, whether the junta likes it or not.
"We want to do this in a collaborative, cooperative way with the authorities in Burma," said Mark Malloch-Brown, the British minister for Africa, Asia and the United Nations.
But he stressed "a lot of lives are at risk."
"The international community cannot take 'no' for an answer," he said here Thursday. "It's a race against time, and we are not racheting up fast enough."
Options available to foreign powers include unauthorized airdrops, coastal landings or helicopter operations. But considering the junta's current stance, any such moves could potentially spark a military incident.
Authorization of intervention by the United Nations Security Council remains unlikely. China, Myanmar's biggest ally, has veto power and has in the past blocked resolutions against the junta.
Tons of foreign aid including water, blankets, mosquito nets, tarpaulins, medicines and tents have been sent to Myanmar, but delivery has been slowed down by bottlenecks, poor infrastructure and bureaucratic tangles.
Dozens of U.S. lawmakers have signed off on a letter to President Bush asking that the United States join any international effort to intervene by bypassing the junta's efforts to interfere with aid.
But for the time being, the U.S. military will not send in aid without Myanmar's approval. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Adm. Timothy Keating, head of the U.S. forces in the Pacific, have publicly stated that coercive intervention is not on the plate.
"We're not going to do anything unilaterally," said Lt. Col. Douglas Powell, a spokesman for the U.S. relief effort.