Imperfect sympathy

Published : Jun 06, 2008 00:00 IST

Source: ESRI/AP

Source: ESRI/AP

The military rulers decline strings-attached Western assistance to handle the rehabilitation of the cyclone-affected.

CYCLONE Nargis, which hit the lower Irrawaddy delta area of Myanmar in the first week of May, is the worst the country has experienced in recorded history. The area, known as the rice bowl of Myanmar, is also a critical source of rice for the whole world, which is increasingly threatened by cereal shortages. Myanmar is a rice exporter. The Irrawaddy region accounts for 80 per cent of the countrys aquaculture, 50 per cent of its poultry production and 40 per cent of its pig production.

The government of Myanmar announced in the second week of May that the death toll stood at 28,548. But foreign aid agencies and international organisations estimate that the death toll would be between 100,000 and 200,000. Around 33,416 people are still unaccounted for. The death toll will no doubt rise further after a full accounting is done in the area, which has a population of around 6.5 million. Water-borne diseases are also said to be taking their toll.

The military-led government of Myanmar has met scathing criticism from the West for its refusal to open its doors for the unhindered flow of humanitarian aid from outside countries. The United States and France were the most vociferous in their demands that their cargo planes be allowed to land immediately in Myanmar to disburse aid. French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner even threatened to use military force to make Myanmar open its doors to Western aid. Kouchner suggested the convening of the United Nations Security Council to invoke its responsibility to protect powers to intervene in Myanmar. Kouchner stated that the French and British warships in the region could be used for the purpose. The U.S. Navy sent in four of its ships to the region in the wake of the cyclone. Sections of mainstream American media ran lead stories recommending an invasion of Myanmar.

The statement by Kouchner, who is no stranger to controversy, only seems to have strengthened the resolve of the Myanmar authorities to put more emphasis on self-reliance while tackling the consequences of the cyclone. The U.N. Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, John Holmes, was quick to dismiss the French Ministers suggestion. Im not sure that invading Myanmar would be a very sensible option, Holmes told the media.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said in the second week of May that with the help of the Myanmar government, more than 220,000 people have availed themselves of emergency aid. According to humanitarian agencies working on the ground, many more civilians are in need of urgent help. Around 150,000 people are living in makeshift camps and are in desperate need of clean water and medicines. Oxfam, the British aid agency, estimates that the lives of around 1.5 million people are at risk if humanitarian aid does not reach them in time.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), Myanmar has one of the worlds worst health care systems. It has been ranked alongside war-ravaged Sierra Leone. The majority of the population lives on less than Rs.40 a day.

After a week of hedging, the government of Myanmar relented a bit to allow U.S. planes to land (though it had initially refused permission). A U.S. cargo plane loaded with food and medicine landed in Yangon on May 10.

It was clear that the West, led by Washington, was trying to undermine the government by harping on its inefficiency and inability to help its people. Despite all its professed sympathy for the people of Myanmar, the U.S. has only offered $3.5 million in financial aid.

Meanwhile, the draconian sanctions imposed by the West on Myanmar remain intact. Washington is also demanding the direct involvement of U.S. officials in the disbursement of its aid. The Myanmar government has insisted that it is capable of overseeing relief aid. It is no secret that Washington wants the present government to be replaced by a pro-Western one. In recent times, the West has used humanitarian issues to usher in regime change. It was the Kosovo refugee problem that allowed the West to alter the map of the Balkans and prop up an independent Kosovo.

Historically, Myanmar, or Burma, has followed a purist form of non-alignment since its independence from Britain in 1943. Neighbouring countries such as India, China, Thailand and Singapore were quick to rush in aid and Myanmar was quick to accept it. Before that, 10 planes carrying jerry cans, 34 tonnes of shelter material, 30 tonnes of water purification material and 2,000 mosquito nets were allowed to land. The Myanmar Foreign Minister, Major General Nyan Win, told foreign diplomats soon after the cyclone that his country welcomes help as the people are in difficulty. The Minister in charge of organising relief, Major General Maung Mang Swe, had specified that there was urgent need for roofing material, medicine and mosquito nets. But at the same time, government officials made it clear that no political conditions should be attached to the aid.

U.S. President George W. Bush, speaking at a special ceremony at the White House to sign a Bill giving the Myanmarese Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi a Congressional Gold Medal in the first week of May, had deliberately put political conditions for the disbursement of the much-needed humanitarian aid. He said that his country was prepared to move U.S. Navy assets to help stabilise the situation. But his precondition was that the military junta must allow our disaster management teams into the country.

The First Lady, Laura Bush, also joined in the baiting of the Myanmar government. She accused it of failing to issue a timely warning about the cyclone to the people and adequately prepare for the consequences. The response to the cyclone is just the most recent example of the juntas failure to meet the peoples needs, she said.

Indian authorities had also refused international assistance in supervising its handling of aid in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami devastation. The Indian Army had conveyed its misgivings about international personnel being deployed in the Andaman and other tsunami-affected areas where strategic air force and naval bases are located. For that matter, the Bush administration had refused Cuban help for the beleaguered people of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina hit the city. From available indications, the Myanmar junta is doing a slightly better job in disaster management than the Bush administration did in New Orleans. Cuba has a policy of despatching medical personnel to disaster-hit areas at short notice. The work of the Cuban mission in earthquake-hit Pakistan in 2005 earned it plaudits in Pakistan as well as internationally.

Nargis is the second most devastating cyclone to hit South Asia. The worst so far has been the one that hit Bangladesh in 1991 killing 143,000. The Myanmar authorities, as was to be expected, were shaken by the magnitude of the devastation. It was a perfect storm, which caused the maximum damage. Almost the entire southern Irrawaddy delta still remains under salt water, which the surging sea tide brought in.

Myanmar, unlike India and Bangladesh, does not have an early warning system. The India Meteorological Department sent out storm warning to its counterpart in Myanmar 48 hours before the cyclone hit the country. Myanmar officials said that storm warnings had been issued on television and radio.

The Myanmar government was more focussed on the May 10 referendum on the new Constitution it had drafted. The Constitution is supposed to pave the way for democracy. But the military rulers have been careful to allocate an important role for the Army in politics while drafting the Constitution: 25 per cent of the seats in the proposed parliament will be reserved for representatives of the Army. The Constitution seems to be modelled after the discredited Indonesian guided democracy Constitution under the late General Suharto. The military will also remain in charge of key Ministries. The most popular figure in the country, Suu Kyi, will remain debarred from politics on the grounds that she married a foreigner.

The referendum has gone ahead in the east of the country despite the cyclone disaster. The people in the cyclone-affected areas will be allowed to cast their votes later. There will be a second round on May 24.

To approve the state Constitution is a national duty for the entire people, let us all cast a Yes vote in the national interest, was the recurrent message being drummed into the population for more than a month. Very few citizens have read the draft of the Constitution, which reportedly promises total civilian democracy by 2010. The Opposition had called for a No vote.

But, according to indications, most people will vote for the new Constitution so that they can experience at least a semblance of democracy and see the back of the present military junta. The U.N. Rapporteur for Human Rights in Myanmar, Paulo Pinheiro, told a news agency that the whole referendum process was surreal. He observed that only those in favour of the Constitution were allowed to campaign.

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