Myanmar’s People Shoulder Their Problem

8 May

The US is still waiting for the green light to start relief flights into Myanmar, to assist Burmese citizens recovering from a 190 kph Cyclone, nicknamed Nargis, and a 3.5 meter wave on May 3. The Burmese government has learned from the North Koreans to beware of foreign benefactors for internal security reasons. I would expect the Burmese junta to request some sort of handover at the border, to allow the junta to change the markings on food and control distribution.

However, .

Another WFP official said three planes were waiting on tarmacs in Bangkok, Dhaka and Dubai with 38 tonnes of supplies.

Myanmar’s generals had issued an appeal for international assistance, but have been dragging their feet over issuing visas to foreign aid workers.

WFP spokesman Paul Risley said aid agencies normally expect to fly in experts and supplies within 48 hours of a disaster, but nearly a week after the Myanmar cyclone, few international groups have been able to send reinforcements into Myanmar.

State media are reporting a death toll of 22,980 with 42,119 missing, although diplomats and disaster experts said the real figure from the massive storm surge that swept into the Irrawaddy delta is likely to be much higher.

”The information that we’re receiving indicates that there may well be over 100,000 deaths in the delta area,” Shari Villarosa, charge d’affaires of the US embassy in Myanmar, said in a teleconference with reporters in Washington.

The Economist points out another effect of the tragedy: .

Demonstrating its warped sense of priorities, the government is insisting that its referendum on a new constitution—which the superstitious junta has scheduled for the “auspicious” date of Saturday May 10th—will go ahead in areas unaffected by the cyclone. In affected areas voting will be delayed by 14 days.

The constitution, scripted during a drawn-out and farcical process overseen by the generals, will give them the power to continue intervening in politics at will, if and when there is a nominally civilian government. It would also reserve 25% of parliamentary seats for army officers, giving them a veto over constitutional changes. It is hard to see how they could hold a proper vote amid such devastation. However, with many reports of people being coerced to vote “yes” and intimidated if they called for a “no” vote, it is clear that it never was going to be a proper vote anyway.

Yet, .

"This is an opportunity for opposition groups to make limited gains," says Thitinan Pongsudhirak, head of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University. "There will be mounting pressures on the government because of its inadequacies. Opposition groups have the upper hand." The disaster could also foster political reconciliation between Burma’s government and the outside world, following a pattern from other natural disasters from Pakistan to Indonesia, experts say.

"It could be quite catalytic, like the [2004] tsunami in Aceh," says John Virgoe, the International Crisis Group’s Southeast Asia project director in Jakarta, Indonesia. "Indonesia does show how game-changing these disasters can be: The tsunami allowed both sides to say, ‘Let’s put aside our differences,’ " he adds, referring to a cease-fire that ended a running conflict between the Indonesian Army and rebel separatists in Aceh.

Mr. Virgoe and others, however, are quick to caution against drawing a direct parallel to Burma, which has shown disdain for dialogue with political opponents and sent mixed signals about even accepting foreign aid workers.


Speaking from the Thai-Burmese border, Nyo Myint, head of foreign affairs for the main opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) party led by Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, says many survivors in the Irrawaddy delta lack drinking water and food. "Some wells have been filled up with dead bodies. [People] are trying to get drinking water from small ponds, but they are also covered with bodies," he says. "Transportation is a problem because the jetties and the ferryboats are gone…. The only way is to have an airlift supported by the US or [others]."

Since receiving its first international shipment from Thailand Tuesday, Burma has accepted aid from longtime friends China, India, and Indonesia. The US upped its aid pledge to $3 million Wednesday.

The visa holdup for foreign aid workers underscores Burma’s dilemma: The Army cannot respond adequately, but allowing outside aid will invite unprecedented scrutiny. "This government is paranoid about foreigners coming in and establishing contacts with the people of Burma," says Aung Zaw, editor of Irrawaddy Magazine, an opposition publication based in Thailand.

Since taking power in a military coup in 1962, Burma’s government has positioned itself as one of the world’s most authoritarian and isolated. Though the NLD won a landslide election in 1990, the junta rejected the results. And last September’s protesters were quickly suppressed.

Many believe the cyclone has created an opportunity for change. "People who I’ve spoken to in Yangon [Rangoon] are very upset with the government," says Mr. Zaw. "Soldiers who came out against the protesters are nowhere to be seen now."

Mr. Myint, of the NLD, says the government has been unable to prevent looting or provide the basics. "Even in big towns with 100,000, there’s only a hundred people receiving government handouts," he says. "They’re trying their best, but they can only cover about 5 percent of what is really badly needed."

Yet, even more disconcerting than that partisan bickering, is :

More than $30 million in cash and goods has been pledged, the U.N. undersecretary-general for emergency relief coordination, John Holmes, told reporters yesterday. A handful of U.N. humanitarian workers could soon be able to go to the country to assess the needs on the ground, he said, adding that while entry visas have not been denied, the Burmese authorities have made entry difficult, with high-ranking officials saying visa approval needed to be deferred to "higher authorities."

"I think we are making progress. I hope we are making progress. I don’t want
to sound too optimistic," Mr. Holmes said, urging Burma’s government to temporarily waive visa requirements for humanitarian workers. Asked about reports that the junta is demanding complete control over the distribution of goods, he said: "It will be very difficult for us to accept" such an arrangement.

Still, Mr. Holmes discouraged a "confrontational" approach with the Burmese government, telling reporters that the United Nations has no plans to "invade" Burma. Taking a different tack, the French foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, said yesterday that "it must be checked" whether the junta "could be forced to let the necessary aid into the country," the Associated Press reported.

Asked about Mr. Kouchner’s statement during a closed-door Security Council consultation, the French ambassador, Jean-Maurice Ripert, said Mr. Holmes should brief the council on the extent of the access Burma’s government has provided to foreign humanitarian workers. "We need to listen to him," Mr. Ripert said.

But a Chinese diplomat told Mr. Ripert that the council, which is charged with international peace and security, should not discuss humanitarian issues. The Chinese official pointed out that the council never discussed the Paris heat wave of 2003, in which 14,000 people died.

Mr. Ripert said he did not think such "sarcastic" comparisons were helpful. "I thanked him for reminding me the difference between a democracy and dictatorship," he said later.

Is this how Beijing, which has committed itself to be Yangon’s patron, is going to play an international role?

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