Friday, May 30, 2008

Iron Grip in the Cyclone

By May Ng

Cyclone Nargis struck Burma almost four weeks ago and it is already too late for some survivors who have died from lack of emergency aid. As the monsoon season approaches, the United Nations' relief experts are calling it a race against time to save the remaining cyclone victims in the hardest hit areas of Irrawaddy delta. But until a few days ago the United Nations and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations-ASEAN were not able to convince the military in Burma to open up the country for a full fledge humanitarian rescue mission.

On May 25th the United Nations and the ASEAN launched a flash appeal to raise funds for the Cyclone victims in Burma. Fifty one countries pledged sixty percent of the $200 millions dollars appeal. At the same time the UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon and the secretary general of the ASEAN, Surin Pitsuwan, asked for and were promised unhindered access into the areas hit hard by Cyclone Nargis.

Since then, the Burmese military began granting visas to the United Nations emergency relief workers. But the visa applications are processed one at a time, and each worker must give two days notice before entering the delta area for a 24 hours stay. But other non-governmental organizations are finding that there has been no improvement in getting access into the delta areas as they still need permission from the government ministries and the military, and must be escorted by the government personals.

Activities of the relief workers are hindered by the government bureaucracy that requires official approval for all actions; and many other aid workers and foreign journalists are still barred from the Irrawaddy delta. So far, only 23 percent of the areas hardest hit by the cyclone Nargis has been reached by aid workers according to the UN.

Interestingly, ten days after the cyclone slammed into Burma, China was also hit by a devastating earthquake; and in both countries, disasters struck in areas where recent monks' unrest and governments' crackdown have taken place. Even though both countries were facing criticisms from attacking the Buddhist monks and protesters, within days after the earthquake, China began accepting help from foreign countries. But the Burmese military refused to allow most foreign experts into the country during the first three weeks.

Burmese government's strict rule against foreign reporters has also resulted in limited press coverage of the cyclone and subsequently the impoverished Burma receives much less aid pledges than China. The backlash against the Burmese governments' indifference to its people's suffering has also contributed to a much smaller than expected international aid.

While Burmese junta continues to rebuff the offer of essential aid from the Americans and French navy---China has been cooperating with the United States and other countries for earthquake relief efforts. After China changed its mind and quickly began accepting foreign assistance, additional financial aids from governments and businesses have been forthcoming, and various diplomatic channels have been opened up for China.

China is also using the occasion to mend its relationship with important neighbors, Japan and Taiwan. Even China's relationship with the Tibetan leaders seems to have eased for the moment, with mutual commitment to help the earthquake victims. Like China, a tremendous window of opportunity has been opened for the Burmese military to gracefully end the political quagmire in Burma through diplomatic and economic channels, after the cyclone. But the Burmese generals have not proven themselves to be equal to the task.

Even as China is trying to improve its global image in the run up to the Olympics; China National Petroleum Corporation and Korea's Daewoo International Corp are signing an agreement with the Burmese junta to explore oil and gas in Burma, in the wake of the cyclone disaster. It is estimated that Burma has at least 90 trillion cubic feet of gas reserves and 3.2 billion barrels of recoverable crude oil reserves in 19 onshore and three major offshore fields. Sean Turnell, a professor at Macquarie University in Australia and a specialist on Burma's economy has estimated that the annual income of up to 17 billion dollars from the oil and gas sale will be channeled into the pockets of ruling junta.

But the Burmese military is still hoping for another round of UN flash appeal to raise funds for the cyclone victim on June 12, and a follow-up reconstruction aid under the aegis of nine members from the UN, ASEAN, and the Burmese junta. During the mean time official newspapers in Burma are making it clear that while financial aid packages through the government are welcome direct assistance to the cyclone victims are not. In a crueler scenario, soldiers are believed to be evicting cyclone victims from little shelters available to them.

There have been reports of roadblocks and seizing of vehicles and aid supplies heading into the delta; but in the latest reports the government may be taking actions to diffuse the tension. Meanwhile the World Health Organization warns of potential outbreak of diseases among storm refugees still out of reach in the remote delta region.

Burma in the aftermath of cyclone is in dire straits. Since, Irrawaddy delta and seaside areas affected by the storm are major producers of rice, fish, and salt for the rest of Burma, the government's mishandling of the relief and recovery from the cyclone may create serious countrywide food shortages and further political unrest. The soaring global rice and oil prices are also cutting into the budget of humanitarian agencies already on the ground, such as the Thai Burma Border Consortium, a primary provider of food for the border refugees and displaced ethnic minorities. Unless alternative fundings can be found to meet the price increase, the border refugees like the storm victims will be going hungry soon.

Only months after the violent assault on country's spiritual leaders, Burma's iron bowl has been cracked by unseen forces. And the cyclone has also disrupted the junta's constitutional referendum, and legitimacy of the military government still remains in doubt, in the wake of the disaster.

While the UN is still struggling with the exact number of dead and injured people after the cyclone, the military junta proceeded to claim an overwhelming 92.48 percent votes for its new constitution. Further testing the credibility of Burmese regime, the house arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi, whose party won the 1990 landslide election in Burma, expired on May 24th. But military has decided to extend her house arrest by violating its own law which only allows the government to detain Aung San Suu Kyi for a maximum of five years.

Up until now, the Irrawaddy delta has been Burma's lifeblood and a major stabilizing factor for the army's hold on political power. Impact from the cyclone in Burma is staggering and the movement of aid workers inside the disaster zone will no doubt have a lasting political impact on the military's iron grip on power.

Many more people will die in the aftermath of the cyclone tragedy from the government's neglect. The damage from lack of humanitarian assistance has been enormous and the repercussion against the junta will be felt long into the future. As more people in Burma and all over the world are waking up to the reality that Burma is much better off without such a ruthless regime the final days of the ruling generals will be numbered.

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

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