Sunday, May 11, 2008

100,000 and still counting; dying on Burma junta's clock

By May Ng

Long before the catastrophic cyclone smashed into Burma and brought down the already feeble nation to its knees, the core of the military organization has suffered a serious blow last September. During the monks' uprising, a Burmese diplomat privately revealed his sympathy for the monks uprising, and his worries about the affect of western sanctions on his family. He did not approve of the killing of the monks and he was unhappy to be identified with the generals who had ordered the killing.

Here lays the crucial reason why the hardliner-generals are furiously pushing through tomorrow's constitutional referendum. The generals are not worrying about what the world or the political oppositions may think. The generals with monks' blood on their hands are now desperately trying to protect themselves from the rest of the army who were not involved in killing of the monks. Constitutional referendum is their last ditch attempt to protect themselves from future prosecution and to ensure their own safety from those who did not commit the crimes.

However, in spite of existence of such resentment the army will remain intact, for it is a close-knit organization where members need each other for over all survival. But the generals with bad conscience want to put constitutional vote, more than the catastrophic Cyclone Nargis, safely behind.

To ensure victory at the voting booth the junta has been trying to beat their opponents into submission. But the fate of the military junta no longer rests with the oppositions, international critics, or even the constitutional referendum. After the deadly Cyclone Nargis, the future of the generals and the future of Burma are now hanging by a thread. No one, but the generals in Naypyidaw is being fooled into believing that they are still in complete control of the storm ravaged country.

The credibility of the military as a capable and responsible government is diminishing by the minute, as storm victims are continuing to die in the second phase of Cyclone Nargis. Unlike last September or China's crackdown in Tibet; one hundred thousand rotting corpses in Irrawaddy delta are hard even for the junta to completely cover up. And it is provoking bitter hatred from all over Burma and the world, against the inhumane government.

A study of the 2004 tsunami stresses the responsibility and accountability of the native and foreign humanitarian actors. As the Burmese junta cannot be trusted to act responsibly or with transparent accountability, most reliable aid donors will decline to hand over the aid supplies and cash donations directly to the military. Instead, lessons from the past tsunami recommend involvement of aid recipients in delivering and making decisions by putting aid workers in direct contact with the receivers.

The "Joint evaluation of the international response to the Indian Ocean tsunami", published on January 2007, revealed that no community or nation has a full set of resources to meet all possible catastrophic emergencies from within their own capacities. Humanitarian emergencies in general are events that overwhelm the immediate local capacity and demand external help. The report stressed that communities may need to call for assistance from the provincial capacities; provinces from national capacities; and nations from international capacities.

Unlike the present situation in Burma, in the aftermath of 2004 tsunami, native volunteers in India, Thailand, and Indonesia, and government official teams with national military, played a key role in the early rescue and relief work.

Similar to the Irrawaddy Delta area, the 2004 tsunami in Indonesia killed many local officials; and the military, especially naval units were destroyed, along with government offices and transport infrastructure; and the local people, before the government responded to the storm first. Mobile phone systems and telephone cables were destroyed, making communication impossible for local officials in Aceh, to get a view of the true scale of the problem and coordinate relief efforts at the beginning.

Main roads as well as key bridges, and main seaports along the coasts of Sri Lanka and Aceh were destroyed. The main airport at Aceh was unusable from flooding. It was up to 10 days, before the most isolated groups got outside help from lack of access, even after the international militaries coordinated successfully with national military capacities, during 2004 tsunami.

The arrival of international actors with huge resources brought much-needed help. International aid both replaced some local resources which the early relief effort had exhausted, and provided new resources which were either not available locally or available in very limited quantities, according to the 2004 tsunami report.

The 2004 tsunami evaluation defined the 'capacity' as multi-faceted, and an effective response calls for interventions, from a wide range of actors each of which may bring particular capacities. While the affected population can bring their knowledge of the context to the response; international agencies can bring their specialist medical or relief skills; the international military can bring their logistics capacity.

Victor D. Cha, Director for Asian Affairs at the National Security Council in Washington wrote that, within 48 hours of the 2004 tsunami, the United States had enlisted Australia, India, and Japan, and organized the largest emergency relief mission in modern history. It sent over 16,000 U.S. military personnel, two dozen ships, and 100 aircraft as part of its immediate $346 million relief package, followed by an additional U.S. commitment of $600 million. This rapid response gave UN agencies both the time and the infrastructure they needed to mobilize and get on the ground.

No other nation, and no international organization, could have coordinated such a response. In comparison Beijing's response to the tsunami which killed 280,000 people and displaced over 1.8 million was slow, feeble, and parochial.

According to John Cosgrave, 'capacity' refers not only to resources, skills and knowledge but also to the ability to influence and control policies and actions. During 2004 tsunami similar to the Cyclone Nargis, the huge needs for relief and recovery all clearly exceeded local capacity to provide them.

Dr. Chris Beyrer, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins who has worked extensively in Burma viewed the country as particularly ill equipped to deal with a public health catastrophe.

The United Nations World Food Program spokesman, Paul Risley also commented that Myanmar's refusal to grant visas to foreign aid teams is "unprecedented in modern humanitarian relief efforts". Many in the worst-hit delta areas have no access to food, drinking water, or medical care and the risk for disease outbreak is increasing.

Most of the delta has been flooded with salt water and CNN Correspondent Dan Rivers reported that the low-lying delta region, home to six million people is receiving no help from anyone, including government soldiers or aid agencies.

The UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has urged the junta to focus on mobilizing all available resources and capacity for the emergency response efforts, instead of tomorrow's referendum.

The UN has just reported that, the Burmese government seized tons of aid material flown in, to help victims of Cyclone Nargis; and the WFP had no choice but to halt aid until the matter was resolved.

As Burmese junta continues to deny several of the world disaster assessment experts' entry; a former under secretary for humanitarian affairs of the 2004 Southeast Asian tsunami lamented that, "We have now lost five or six days because of the government's intransigence," even though planes loads of supplies, and military forces from 12 countries were ready to go in to help the disaster victims in Burma.

The cry to force humanitarian aid into Burma will get louder by the hour as the military government carts away supplies, cash, and emergency aid without allowing the entry of aid workers. Death toll, in the mean time, continues to climb above the estimated 100,000--on Burma junta's clock.

May Ng is from the Southern Shan State and NY regional director of Justice for Human Rights in Burma.

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