Thursday, May 15, 2008

Why Myanmar's junta steals foreign aid

By Brian McCartan

CHIANG MAI, Thailand - Myanmar's generals may have more than self-promoting propaganda in mind by commandeering aid provided by international donors and insisting that the military deliver it without the assistance and expertise of foreign disaster relief personnel. The junta's control of aid and food stocks may rather be a hedge to remain in power.

The junta's insistence on holding a constitutional referendum at the preset date on Saturday, despite the widespread destruction caused by Cyclone Nargis, demonstrated clearly its determination to hold onto power at all costs. The regime only postponed the election in 47 townships affected by the cyclone in Yangon and Irrawaddy Divisions.

The referendum was labeled a sham by rights groups, Myanmar's political opposition and several foreign governments. The seemingly overwhelming "Yes" vote the constitution received was widely predicted after months of government intimidation. Fears of vote rigging were largely borne out by widespread reports from opposition political and media organizations.

Yet the generals apparently have a different agenda in their handling and distribution of international aid, which has been widely criticized for not allowing foreign aid workers to assist with distribution. While the first priority was clearly solidifying their rule through the referendum, they are also haunted by an almost pathological fear of a split inside their own ranks. During the popular demonstrations in September last year there were numerous reports of dissent within the rank and file, especially when it came to shooting monks who were in the forefront of the demonstrations.

The generals will likely have come to the same conclusions as many outside observers: their rice bowl has been badly damaged in the Irrawaddy Delta region and will likely not recover quickly. This is going to put a severe strain on existing rice stocks at a time the purchase of foreign rice has become increasingly expensive due to surging global commodity prices.

From the junta's perspective, the group that needs to be fed first is the 400,000 strong military, rather than the desperate civilian survivors of the crisis. With their respective family members, the military's associated numbers could be as high as 2 million, according to one Western military source. To the generals, the people now gathering in makeshift camps can be controlled, but only if the military remains united. An army without food or with starving families, especially in an army where most of the soldiers were forcibly recruited, is much more likely to revolt.

Lack of food is a perennial problem in Myanmar's army. In a report released on May 9 by Karen Human Rights Group (KHRG), based on interviews with army deserters, the group said, "Threats, physical abuse and under nourishment are rife in the [Myanmar] army." While the soldiers interviewed by KHRG were serving at the frontline were food is often scarce, foreign residents in Myanmar have also commented on the malnourished look of soldiers in urban areas like Yangon and Mandalay.

In the 1990s, orders were issued to the army to be self-sufficient and live off the land. According to numerous reports by human rights groups like KHRG, Human Rights Foundation of Monland, Shan Human Rights Foundation and international groups like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, this policy has resulted in looting, extortion, forced labor and the forced confiscation of land for military farms.

These abuses have been noted in particular in the insurgency-plagued border areas, as well as in the relatively more peaceful central areas of the country - including the Irrawaddy Delta. These methods have kept the soldiers fed, at least at a basic subsistence level. Falling morale, however, is a problem in the military and the leaked documents of several high-level military meetings noted rising desertion levels and discontent in the ranks before the cyclone hit.

Some of this, according to deserters, is due to insufficient rations for themselves and their families. While a pressing problem, it had not become so severe that whole units were deserting or revolting. Now, with severe food shortages looming through the damage wrought by Cyclone Nargis, if soldiers are not given priority in aid distribution and are unable to feed themselves, the possibility of mutiny rises.

Death to the military
Cyclone Nargis did not only kill civilians, destroy homes and wipe out crops; it also took its toll on the military. The navy was particularly hard hit by the cyclone and the ensuing tidal wave. According to a senior opposition military officer, many navy ships were sunk and several hundred sailors were killed in the storm. The naval station on Hainggyi Island, the headquarters of the Pamawaddy Regional Command, was particularly hard hit. The Irrawaddy magazine, citing Myanmar naval sources, reported that up to 25 vessels were destroyed and 280 officers and sailors had gone missing.

The navy was not the only service to suffer. The Irrawaddy Delta is the operational area of the Southwest Regional Command, headquartered at Bathein. The command comprises 13 battalions spread out in camps throughout the region, including Pyapon and Mawlamyinegyun, both areas hard hit by the cyclone. The Southwest Command is also a politically important post.

Previous commanders of the post include Senior General Saw Maung, leader of the 1988 palace coup that installed the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), which was renamed the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) in 1997, as well as current junta leader Senior General Than Shwe and General Thura Shwe Mann, the current number three in the SPDC, joint commander-in-chief of the military and widely tipped to be a possible successor to Than Shwe.

From 1949 to the early 1970s, the Irrawaddy Delta was a battleground between the army and insurgents of the Karen National Union (KNU) and the Burmese Communist Party. Although both groups were pushed out of the area in the early 1970s, the army remained. In 1991, during what was called the "Bogalay Crisis", the KNU sent fighters and arms to the delta for an abortive insurrection. Although quickly crushed, the army expanded its presence through various camps situated in the region.

According to military opposition sources and residents, it can be safely assumed that many of these camps would also have been wiped out by the recent storm. Military bases and camps of the Yangon and Western Commands, responsible for Yangon Division and Arakan State respectively, would also likely have been affected.

No estimates of military casualties are available, but the toll on the soldiers could be on a par with civilian casualties in the area. Many soldiers and their family members in the Irrawaddy Delta and Yangon would likely have lost family members, or currently are struggling to get food and other necessities.

For the generals, this is where the importance of international aid comes in. With rice crops and storage facilities destroyed, bases wiped out, already discontented soldiers running out of food and with many of their family members dead, injured or unable to feed or fend for themselves, the military leadership needs to move quickly to preserve their hold over the rank and file and thus their hold on political power.

Several witnesses claim that aid supplies given by the generals, with certain military leaders' names painted on the packages, are only a propaganda exercise. They say that once the video cameras are turned off, the soldiers pack up the remaining undistributed aid and take it away. In one state-television broadcast, labels with the names of army generals were shown pasted over aid packages clearly saying "Aid from the Kingdom of Thailand".

The World Food Program temporarily halted aid flights on Friday after the military seized two food shipments, but resumed them the next day saying the scale of the humanitarian crisis necessitated sending the aid even if they could not control its distribution. More aid is now arriving in Myanmar, but relief officials say it is only a trickle and much more will be needed to avoid a wider humanitarian disaster.

Official government statistics now stand at 28,458 dead and 33,416 people missing. According to figures presented by the United Nations Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, based on their own assessments, an estimated 1,215,885 to 1,919,485 people have been adversely affected by the cyclone. They also estimate there are anywhere between 63,290 to 101,682 dead and 220,000 missing.

Yet the junta continues to hamper aid efforts by denying visas to humanitarian relief specialists, many of whom are now stranded in neighboring Bangkok. The military regime has consistently said it wants the relief supplies, but not the aid workers. It especially does not want aid workers who may control the distribution of relief supplies, precisely because that would keep the military from monopolizing the dispersal of the aid and prevent it from channeling it to its own members.

These numbers will likely rise as fuller assessments are made and many survivors succumb to disease, deprivation and starvation. Of particular concern to relief agencies is the threat of diseases such as cholera, malaria, typhus and dysentery brought on by the lack of proper shelter and sanitation and with drinking water contaminated by the dead.

Residents of Yangon and the Irrawaddy Delta say that the local population is increasingly outraged by the junta's lack of assistance and its hoarding of aid. To the junta's top generals, far away in their bunkers in their secluded new capital at Naypyidaw, the aid distribution policy is apparently political survival at all costs. But as it becomes more apparent to the wider suffering population that the junta is only looking after its own that policy could stoke more unrest than it avoids.

Brian McCartan is a freelance journalist based in Chiang Mai, Thailand. He can be reached at

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