Burma: A chance to respond to the people not taken?

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Cyclone Nargis will definitely affect the referendum on the new Burmese constitution to be drafted. The Burmese people today are one of the most troubled in the world as they face a natural disaster and a man-made political disaster. The frustration is unimaginable, says John Smith Thang.

From Friday night 2 May 2008, the terrible cyclone storm of 120 mph winds and 12-foot waves from the Bay of Bengal destroyed several thousand Burmese people, their homes and farmland. This frightful cyclone called ‘Nargis’ was the largest disaster our present Burmese generation ever saw, the largest storm in decades and the largest destruction in Asia after the tsunami in 2004. Maung Maung Swe, the Minister for Relief and Resettlement, stated its cause as being a 12-foot high tidal wave.

The storm critically damaged a coastal area of over 11,600 square miles along the Andaman Sea and the Gulf of Martaban (satellite map available at United Nations). This is just 5 per cent of the country’s territory but a quarter of the country’s population is affected. The cyclone left more than 1 million people homeless. On 7 May 2008, state radio said there were 22,000 dead, and later the Myanmar government added that the death toll reached 70,000,2 and 41,000 were said to be missing.

The Foreign Minister, Nyan Win reiterated that people were killed in the Myanmar cyclone and numbers were likely to increase (MSNBC News). US Embassy sources in Myanmar estimated death tolls to number more than 100,000 (tvnz). Restrictions on media reporting make it difficult to assess the overall disaster situation. It is assumed there are worse cases that have not been reported. Moreover, sole reliance is on the government controlled media.

Casualties of Cyclone Nargis.

The Irrawaddy delta is the worst affected area, where about 15 million people were resident (Turnell, Macquarie University). However, Turnell,3 said this country hasn’t had a full census since 1937 (nytimes, 7 May 2008, Bangkok). Where millions of people are homeless, some villages were almost totally destroyed and vast areas of rice-fields were wiped out by the flood (The UN World Food Programme). Moreover waterborne diseases are spreading and threaten those remaining alive. The emergency priority now is clean water and shelter.

Two-thirds of the total population is thought to have died in Bogalay town in the Irrawaddy Delta. Bogalay is a significant area of conflict between democracy advocates and Burmese government authorities. The democratic political party in that place was forced to close down years ago. The Irrawaddy delta was also the home of the ethnic Karen political movement. It is an area of mixed Karen and Burman ethnicity and is also the highest rice producing region in the country. The people in this place have been involved in several uprisings, earning the distrust and disfavour of the military junta. So it is no surprise that the military ignores them and does not rush to provide relief to victims here.

If there were any democratic armed groups in a disaster location, the military would rush to crush them; the army would reach the location within a few hours, as they usually do when attacking ethnic armed groups in border areas. But when it comes to disaster victims, there is no easy way for army personal to reach them to supply relief.

In Yangon, the largest city of nearly 6.5 million people, where an estimated 671 were killed, heavy rain and winds had torn off the roofs of many houses, and many trees had been up-rooted. Yangon Airport, the only main air route to the outside world had to close down and all communications and electricity was cut off. The authorities made no effort to restore immediately to normal conditions the old capital city that provides public service administration in various sectors to the whole nation. It is clear, that apart from the top generals in the Yangon city to Naypidaw (current capital city), restoration of the city for the public’s survival is significantly slower. This reveals the irresponsibility of the Burmese junta.

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Inept warning system and limited media coverage

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The sudden cyclone disaster in Burma was clearly due to lack of an early warning system, there was virtually no media broadcasts before the catastrophe. Many people are angry, at the misinformation and the virtual absence of public warning. Government television broadcasts late on Friday, announced 30 mph winds when the actual wind speed was 120 mph with 12-foot storm surges (MSNBC News Services, updated 11:49 p.m. ET 5 May 2008).

Similarly the regime made a casual announcement about the storm on 29 April in its newspapers from Naypyidaw (the new military capital). Abroad, the Indian Meteorological Department had sent out warnings, 48 hours in advance, as was done by the US Navy and Air Force Joint Typhoon Warning Centre (S.H.A.N).

In view of the overall information received, the Burmese junta was able to receive tentative warning of the cyclone disaster, but seems deliberately to have neglected to take it seriously. The reason for this appears to be that they didn’t want to make advance preparations and arrangement of safe shelters. Large expense is necessary for evacuation of a million people. The junta also fears public uprising if large numbers of people are gathered in one place.

In fact, the regime would have had the capability to widely disseminate the information released by the Indian Meteorological Department and US N & A Typhoon Warning Centre if no media restriction was imposed in Burma. This is also the consequence of the non-existence of private media in the country. Otherwise, people could, at least, have prepared themselves and evacuated to safer places within a few days if they had been adequately forewarned of the disaster.

Experts agree that lack of funding and the unreliability of a regional warning system contributed to the high death toll, as an extensive warning system was established by the Asia Pacific countries after the tsunami disaster in 2004. But the Burmese junta had claimed only a few hundred casualties in the tsunami disaster and did not participate in the installation of a warning system.

This dictatorial regime has never been concerned about public social welfare, public safety or human rights. They even turn a deaf ear to international and regional suggestions to exempt themselves from responsibility. But after the cyclone hit, state television immediately broadcasted images of a government truck distributing water as part of their relief efforts, but residents said they hadn’t seen any water trucks around the city.4 Instead, church volunteers and monks are actively participating in relief efforts , but these are not publicised.

Constitutional referendum and dying people

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Unpalatably, the Constitutional referendum will be postponed to 24 May in 40 of 45 townships in the Yangon area and in another seven in the wider delta (state radio said on Saturday). The process is illusory and uncertain. One certainty is that, it will not genuinely reflect the people’s consent to vote in the referendum. The military government will try to obtain peoples approval by force.

In present circumstances, there is no freedom of expression or freedom from disaster crisis. Actually this referendum should have been conducted 17 years ago. As most democracy supporters and civilians were not allowed to participate in drafting the constitution, voting will simply pave the way for a military-oriented system in which 25 per cent of parliamentary seats will be reserved for military personnel. A high-ranking army person will fill the president’s post and the Chief of the Army will be the most powerful position in this system of apparent civilian rule. Further, this military-oriented constitution does not allow much change.

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There is also the issue of polling booths. In the midst of a disaster, how can the authorities make arrangements for polling stations, road transportation, sufficient media dissemination of information and time for consideration that is necessary for people going to the polls. Roads and bridges have collapsed, there is no electricity or communications. It is very doubtful that all these can be implemented on time for public service before polling starts.

Experience has not seen the military government make any good effort to assist the public, especially in urgent situations; it is no surprise that relief efforts are delayed and slow. Inevitably, people will question the inadequacy of the warnings and the ineffectiveness of the government and its manipulation of the crisis. The unfairness of the constitutional referendum process carried out during a time of disaster will be clearly revealed.

Asean and neighboring countries’ response

Burma’s most influential political and economic neighbour, communist China, failed to make any effort to respond to this widely known catastrophe that occurred before the Szechuan earthquake in that country. China had previously pledged unconditional assistance to Burma in the event of such disasters. The saying ‘a friend in need is a friend in deed’, however, appears unfulfilled except when it comes to military tyranny as revealed by China’s response to this crisis.

Singapore, the former Chair of Asean, also remained silent in face of this disaster. Small in territorial size, it is loud in bandying the slogan of ‘Asian values’; yet Singapore has a similarly authoritarian political structure as Burma. The motive for the call to support ‘Asian values’ in the manipulation of the Burmese disaster is clearly seen.

Burma’s second largest neighbour, Thailand, with which strong economic ties are shared and is the largest recipient of Burmese resources, was first to provided a flow of relief to Burma. Thailand collected international donations and redistributed them. It was the first to initiate relief efforts in response to the Burmese cyclone disaster. C-130 military transport planes carrying aid, unloaded provisions of rice, canned fish, water and dried noodles. Subsequently Indian ships also brought food and relief materials. It may be, because India is the world largest democracy.

(Note that this article was written soon after Cyclone Nargis had hit Burma on 3 May 2008; since then other members of the international community have and are still attempting to send urgent relief into Burma but efforts are being hindered by the military government. – Aliran)

UN and international community response

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So far the UN’s World Food Programme is said to have sent 800 tons of food in international aid. Despite the welcome shown by the Burmese military to the UN, it is common knowledge that the UN is in a weak position to cope with the whole disaster situation. Still, we know that the UN will use its best efforts to make relief available to disaster victims.

In contrast, the United States has greater capacity and strength to extend relief. This country has already sent an initial emergency contribution of $250,000 and continues to send more than $3 million to help cyclone victims. But the problem with US aid is that Burma is currently an undemocratic state with a track record of human rights violations.

The US government used to refrain from offering any assistance to this military regime. But on humanitarian grounds it is now offering assistance. Yet another problem that arises is accessing and landing US teams on disaster locations. Recently, President Bush called on the junta to allow the United States to send in a disaster assessment team to speed up the process.

The US Navy based in Thailand is already prepared to respond to the emergency with two aircraft carriers and three ships. The Essex ship has 23 helicopters, including 19 that are capable of lifting cargo from ship to shore. Without helicopters and boats it would be very difficult to mobilise relief in flooded disaster areas. There are broken bridges, collapsed roads and railways. At the moment, only the US Navy may have the capacity to solve the problem.

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Even though the offer of US help may be appropriate for any other US-friendly country, in the case of Burma, the military regime views this as a threat. It seems that the US will have to ask the military government to accept their offer to assist in relief efforts before it can send its massive relief package to Burma. But the US offer is unlikely to be accepted, as Information Minister Kyaw Hsan said they are going to accept only a trickle of aid.

Similarly, other European and western countries will carry on with their relief efforts depending on the authority’s manipulation of the disaster situation. Australia seems pro-active as the Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith, has already promised immediate humanitarian assistance of $3 million. Canada, China, the European Union and Japan have expressed willingness to send aid. The priority is, of course, to reach locations where urgent aid is needed at this time. Other members of the international community have pledged about $40 million in relief aid (S.H.A.N). In this circumstance, however, the Burmese junta seems unlikely to adequately play its part in the humanitarian process.

Rice economy

The cyclone affected rice-growing region in Burma. Eleven million tons of rice per year was grown in the Irrawaddy Delta (USDA figures). The country exported at least 100,000 tons of rice this year, as Burma’s exports amount to 1.7 per cent of world trade, even though export forecasts put this at about 400,000 tons this year. In fact, Burma should be able to export more if there was no military rule and a good economic system. Anyway, after the cyclone disaster, US rice futures were 10 cents higher settling at $21.15 per 100 pounds (Tuesday on the Chicago Board of Trade). The collapse of Burma’s rice production, however, seems not to have much effect on international rice reserves, but it certainly has a deteriorating impact on the lives of local Burmese people.

Trapped in a dilemma

The immediate problem facing relief efforts is coordination and distribution of aid. The military dictatorship is reputedly bad at managing and coordinating public services. Mr. Banbury of the World Food Programme expressed his fears of the inefficiency of distribution of relief aid under the military bureaucracy. Land access by the international team to enter inland disaster areas is another problem. According to a United Nations spokeswoman, disaster assessment officials were awaiting visas to enter Myanmar. This means there is still inadequate assessment of disaster areas by international relief groups.

The suffering Burmese people have nothing else on their minds but the need for emergency relief assistance. This is no time for political bargaining and ‘kow-tow’-ing for political benefit by parties with vested interests. It is necessary to work together for the sake of innocent victims, human beings devastated by this disaster.

It is also time for the military to show the people their responsiveness by implementing a humanitarian process immediately. People waiting for help are dying. This will definitely affect the referendum on the new constitution to be drafted, via voting for the present and future lives of the Burmese people. The people are trapped in a dilemma between these two situations. The frustration is unimaginable. Burmese people are one of the most troubled in the world as they face a natural disaster and a man-made political disaster.

John Smith Thang is a Burmese human rights activist and freelance writer based in Korea.

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