A Burmese Tragedy

From the news:

May 6, 2008
At least 22,000 people have died and 41,000 more are missing in Burma after typhoon Nargis hit the south of the country on Friday and Saturday. Hundreds of thousands are homeless, according to United Nations officials.

According to eyewitnesses, local Buddhist monks have started to help the victims wherever they can. As drinking water is running out, “they have opened their wells to the people,” said Rémi Favre, FRANCE 24’s correspondent in Rangoon, the country’s largest city.
“The monks are working very closely with the people,” Tun Myint Aung told FRANCE 24. A student leader, he has lived in hiding since an uprising involving many monks was suppressed in Burma last September.

According to Aung, the security forces are not taking part in relief efforts.

Two thirds of the known deaths occurred in the town of Bogalay, located in the heart of the Irrawaddy delta. “Some 10,000 people died there – that’s the equivalent of the entire town’s population,” said FRANCE 24 correspondent Cyril Payen from Bangkok, in neighbouring Thailand. The area was hit by 200-km/h winds and water levels rose by up to three metres.
Burma’s regime had to open the door to some degree of international aid to face the crisis. The military dictatorship in power since 1962 has, until now, allowed very few humanitarian workers to enter the country, one of the poorest in the world. It refused international aid after the 2004 tsunami. Burma’s borders are still closed to journalists.

After four days of negotiations, the authorities have slowly started issuing visas to UN agencies and NGOs asking for access to the disaster zone.
Source: http://www.france24.com/en/20080506-30000-30,000-missing-burma-myanmar-cyclone-referendum

May 7, 2008
RANGON — Burma’s military government came under pressure on Wednesday to open its borders to international help after a devastating cyclone that a U.S. diplomat said may have killed more than 100,000 people.
The top UN humanitarian official urged Burma to waive visa restrictions for aid workers and customs clearance for goods which he said were slowing efforts to bring in disaster relief experts and supplies to help an estimated 1 million people affected by Cyclone Nargis.
State Burma radio and television, the main official sources for casualties, reported an updated death toll of 22,980 with 42,119 missing and 1,383 injured in Asia’s most devastating cyclone since a 1991 storm in Bangladesh that killed 143,000.
A U.S. diplomat in Burma said diplomats there were receiving information that there could have been more than 100,000 deaths from the cyclone that smashed into coastal towns and villages in the rice-growing Irrawaddy delta southwest of Rangon
Thailand, China, India and Indonesia were flying in relief supplies and the United States and Australia appealed to Burma’s ruling military to accept their assistance.
Even relief workers of the United Nations, which has a presence in the diplomatically isolated Southeast Asian country, were awaiting visas five days after Cyclone Nargis struck with 190 km/hour winds.

Political analysts and critics of 46 years of military rule say the cyclone may have long-term implications for the junta, which is even more feared and resented since last September’s bloody crackdown on Buddhist monk-led protests.
Water purification tablets, plastic sheeting, basic medical kits, bed nets and food were priorities, UN officials said.
Mr. Holmes said 24 countries had already pledged US$30-million and he expected much more to be offered after the UN sets out its priorities and target for aid in a flash appeal on Friday. He said the UN emergency relief would also contribute at least US$10-million.

The United Nations recognized in 2005 the concept of “responsibility to protect” civilians when their governments could or would not do it, even if this meant intervention that violated national sovereignty.
France’s UN Ambassador Jean-Maurice Ripert asked the Security Council on Wednesday to take a stand on the crisis by calling for a humanitarian briefing and issuing a statement. He said two or three countries had blocked that on procedural grounds, saying that it was not a security matter.
“We think it’s time for the Security Council to express its concern … to exhort, to ask, to call on the government of Burma to open its border,” Mr. Ripert told reporters, adding that France and others were ready to help but were being rebuffed.
Source: http://www.nationalpost.com/news/story.html?id=499011

May 8, 2008

The United Nations estimates that at least 1.5 million people in Burma have been “severely affected” by Cyclone Nargis — which struck the country last Saturday.
UN humanitarian affairs chief John Holmes confirmed the figure Thursday and told reporters he was “disappointed” that it was taking so long to get aid into the country.
The UN, after days of obstacles from Burma’s isolationist military government, was finally allowed Thursday to land two planes loaded with humanitarian aid. Another two planes are expected to land soon.

Despite the magnitude of the disaster, the junta is continuing to deny U.S. military planes carrying aid.
The government is also holding up visas for UN aid distribution teams. The U.S. is now considering air-dropping aid to victims.
“We’re outraged by the slowness of the response of the government of Burma (Myanmar) to welcome and accept assistance,” U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad told reporters Thursday.
“It’s clear that the government’s ability to deal with the situation, which is catastrophic, is limited.”

In order to understand the recent tragedy Burma is going through, namely the devastations caused by the recent cyclone that swept the country, along with the refuse to allow UN convoys with humanitarian help to get into the country, we have to review a little bit what we know about Burma, ruled by the current military junta since 1988.

Burma, now known as Myanmar is located in Southeast Asia.
Burma is bordered by the China on the north, Laos on the east, Thailand on the southeast, Bangladesh on the west, and India on the northwest, with the Andaman Sea to the south, and the Bay of Bengal to the southwest.

It was the scene of bloody battles between the British troops and Japanese troops during WW2. The so-called “Death Railway” that was built by the Japanese using Allied POW’s (that resulted in many thousands of allied prisoners dying in hard-labor building the railway) is in Burma. The so-called “Bridge over the River Kwai” (that was made into a movie) is as segment of this railway.

The Burma Army dictatorship on its own accord changed the name of Burma to Myanmar. Many pro democracy groups including minority ethnic groups and individuals like Nobel peace prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, continue to call the country Burma. Out of respect for their cause of freedom, some members of the international community continue to call the country Burma.

Recently, Burma was in the news due to a UN Security Council vote in which nine members voted for a resolution on Burma. Unfortunately, China and Russia vetoed this resolution, along with South Africa opposing as well.

Who is in the junta?

1. Senior General Than Shwe, 73, is the head of the ruling junta and controls the army. Than Shwe is said to be superstitious and regularly seeks the advice of astrologers.
2. Maung Aye- is also a career soldier and the second most powerful man in the country. He is believed to have established strong ties with Burma’s many drug lords in the Golden Triangle while operating as a colonel in the late 1970s and 80s, before he joined the military leadership in 1993.
3. Lieutenant General Soe Win, 58, was seen as a hard-line operator with close links to Than Shwe. He died of unconfirmed illness and has been replaced as acting prime minister by Lt Gen Thein Sein, who ranks fifth in the military.

What’s happening now?

Well, the ‘generals’ were safe in their new relocated capital and like any ‘respectable’ junta, could not care less about the general population.
It was being reported that the authorities had been warned by India about the cyclone two days before it struck, but had failed to act on the information and evacuate, or at least alert people along the coastline.
I guess the thought of dealing with evacuation was along the ‘too much trouble’ line.

And to add insult to injury, the same authorities that had been quick to send in the soldiers to break up last year’s peaceful demonstrations, suddenly seemed much slower off the mark when helping the people.
The generals may allow international aid in but they will want to control it every step of the way.
In the mean time, The London-based human rights group Amnesty International said some donors were delaying aid for fear it would be siphoned off to the army. The World Food Program’s regional director, Anthony Banbury, indicated the United Nations had similar concerns.
“We will not just bring our supplies to an airport, dump it and take off,” he said. “This is one reason why there is a hold up now, because we are going to bring in not just supplies but a lot of capacity to go with them to make sure the supplies get to the people.”

The imminent dangers are related to malaria outbreaks in the worst-affected area, and fears of waterborne illnesses due to dirty water and poor sanitation.
That’s why safe water, safe food, sanitation and shelters are priorities at this moment.

I wonder if the military junta would still proceed with the referendum scheduled for May 10, 2008?

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