[ReadingRoom] News on Burma 12/5/08
- Burmar's death toll could increase 15-fold, warns Oxfam
- Burma's referendum says "yes" to pro-military charter
- U.N. says 220,000 reported missing in Myanmar cyclone
- The case for invading Myanmar
- "All we can do is drink whisky"
- The unravelling of the burmese junta
- Junta Holds Referendum in Cyclone Aftermath
- Cyclone Nargis Exposes Junta's Anti-People Attitude
Burmar's death toll could increase 15-fold, warns Oxfam
Deutsche Presse-Agentur: 11/5/08
Bangkok/Yangon - Burma's death toll from Cyclone Nargis could increase 15-fold to 1.5 million people in coming weeks unless a tsunami-style relief effort is put in place and access granted to international aid workers, the international agency Oxfam said Sunday.
"With the likelihood of 100,000 or more killed in the cyclone there are all the factors for a public health catastrophe which could multiply that death toll by up to 15 times in the coming period," said Oxfam's Regional Director for East Asia, Sarah Ireland.
"We support a call to lift visa restrictions on international aid agencies wanting to assist disaster affected people in Myanmar," said Ireland, joining a growing chorus of relief experts demanding Burma's ruling generals grant them visas to expedite a massive emergency aid programme in the areas hard-hit by the cyclone on May 2 to 3, which are only receiving a trickle of supplies a week after the storm.
The cyclone has been described as the worst natural disaster in South-east Asia since the December 26, 2004, tsunami that claimed a quarter-of-a-million lives in Indonesia, Thailand, India and other countries rimming the Indian Ocean.
The tsunami, coming the day after Christmas, sparked an unprecedented outpouring of international aid that was welcomed by the disaster-struck countries.
Burma's cyclone has been a different story. While its military regime has welcomed international aid, it blocked the entry of international aid workers all last week, apparently seeking to distribute the aid itself in a cynical publicity stunt.
The cyclone came at a sensitive time politically for the junta, which had planned a referendum on Saturday to win approval of a new constitution that will cement its dominant role under future elected governments through s system of appointees in the upper and lower houses.
Ignoring international appeals to postpone the vote and concentrate on the helping the cyclone victims instead, the military went ahead with the referendum on Saturday, although it was delayed until May 24 in 47 of the worst-hit townships.
International aid workers are growing increasingly frustrated with the generals self-serving strategies in the face of a looming hunger and health crisis in the country, especially in the Irrawaddy delta where the majority of the victims are still without basic supplies because of logistical obstacles and lack of goods.
"In the Boxing Day tsunami 250,000 people lost their lives in the first few hours but we did not see an outbreak of disease because the host governments and the world mobilised a massive aid effort to prevent it happening," said Oxfam's Ireland. "We have to do the same for the people of Myanmar."
Citing evidence from previous experiences in disasters such as the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and Pakistan earthquake in 2005, Oxfam said that without an immediate injection of life-saving aid such as clean water sources, up to 1.5 million people are at risk from a diseases such as cholera, typhoid and shigella.
"We are certain the international humanitarian community can make a difference on the ground and that's why we want to work with the people of Myanmar affected by this terrible disaster," said Ireland.
Although Burma is still stalling on granting visas to international aid workers, it was permitting the flow of goods into the country.
The World Food Programme (WFP) reportedly flew in three deliveries of high-energy biscuits over the weekend and the UN Human Rights Commissioner (UNHCR) was allowed to send trucks with 20 tons of provisions from Thailand into Burma via the Mae Sot border crossing.
Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej, 80, added to the aid flow on Sunday when he donated 2,000 relief kits valued at over 1 million baht (31,750 dollars) to victims of the cyclone.
The royal donation, including kitchen utensils and bedding material, was transported by a Thai military C-130 aircraft to Rangoon Sunday morning.
The combo of NASA satellite pictures shows the coastal region of Burma on 15 April 2008 (L) and after the cyclone Nargis on 05 May 2008 (R).//epa
Burma's referendum says "yes" to pro-military charter
Deutsche Presse-Agentur: 11/5/08
Rangoon - Burma's "sham" referendum held this weekend despite the national tragedy wrought by Cyclone Nargis, can expect an overwhelming "yes" vote for a new pro-military charter, according to initial counts seen by sources close to ruling junta Sunday.
Nearly 100 per cent of the people voted in favour of the new constitution in Kokogyun township, Rangoon Division, in the referendum held Saturday, while about 90 per cent cast "yes" votes in Mandalay Division and 95 per cent in Tachileik township, Shan State, said a government source, who asked to remain anonymous.
Burma's military rulers pushed through the referendum Saturday intended to cement their political power despite international appeals to postpone the vote in the wake of Cyclone Nargis that has killed an estimated 100,000 people.
Although the junta has postponed the vote to May 24 in 47 of the districts worst-hit by the cyclone, including much of the former capital Rangoon, it rejected international appeals to delay the controversial referendum and concentrate on providing emergency relief.
The referendum process, held under the strict control of Burmese military masters, has been call a sham by human rights activists and western democracies for being neither free nor fair.
The regime has used both intimidation and vote-buying to assure the populace votes yes, and will predictably resort to vote-rigging if too many vote no, observers said.
Many civil servants, including teachers, soldiers, police, and members of the Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA) - the military's mass organisation - were required to cast their votes in advance, and most were told by their bosses to vote yes, sources said. Others were enticed to do so.
During recent weeks Burmese military has made clear through billboard and media campaigns that they expect the people to vote yes.
It is expected that many people will still vote no, but since criticising the constitution in public became a crime as of last February, they are not likely to admit it.
"No" protest votes were expected to be especially high in the cyclone-affected areas, given the government's poor response to the disaster and deliberate interference with an international assistance programme, but whether they will be acknowledged in the official tallies is doubted.
Last week local newspapers and TV highlighted military men passing out emergency supplies to the people affected by the cyclone, while at the same time the junta refused to grant visas to international aid workers, slowing the disaster relief effort.
An estimated 1.5 million people were affected by Cyclone Nargis, which crashed in to the central coastal region on May 2 and 3, leaving 23,335 dead and 37,019 missing, according to the latest official figures. Others estimate the death toll could reach 100,000.
The referendum was on a new constitution, drafted by a military-appointed forum, which will essentially allow the military control over future elected governments through a system of appointees in both the upper and lower legislative houses.
Burma has been under military rule for the past 46 years. The current junta has promised a general election in 2010, but given its constitutional control over both houses, prospects for true democracy remain dim.
U.N. says 220,000 reported missing in Myanmar cyclone
Reuters: Sun 11 May 2008
The number of people reported missing in the Myanmar cyclone was about 220,000, the United Nations humanitarian agency said on Sunday, warning of environmental damage, violence and mass migration.
It said assessments of 55 townships in the Irrawaddy delta and other disaster areas found up to 102,000 people could have been killed in Cyclone Nargis, which struck flimsy dwellings with fierce winds and waves on the night of May 2.
Based on these assessments, the U.N. estimates that 1,215,885 to 1,919,485 million people have been affected by the cyclone, the number of deaths could range from 63,290 to 101,682, and 220,000 people are reported to be missing, the report by the United Nations Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said.
Myanmar state-run TV reported on Sunday night that the death toll had risen to more than 28,458 and 33,416 people were missing.
The cyclone had likely resulted in acute environmental issues that could pose an immediate risk to human life and health, the U.N. report said.
It said migration and violence were also emerging as problems in the poor southeast Asian country, where a succession of military juntas have ruled with an iron grip for 46 years.
Given the gravity of the situation including the lack of food and water, some partners have reported fears for security, and violent behaviour in the most severely afflicted areas, the report said.
Some assessments have suggested that people are coping by migrating outwards from the most affected to less affected areas in search of the basic necessities.
The U.N. agency also said few visas have been issued for disaster relief workers to enter the country.
The reclusive military government, while accepting aid from all over the world, has been reluctant to allow in western aid experts, many of whom have been waiting in Bangkok and other cities for days.
The case for invading Myanmar - Shawn W Crispin
BANGKOK - With United States warships and air force planes at the ready, and over 1 million of Myanmar's citizens left bedraggled, homeless and susceptible to water-borne diseases by Cyclone Nagris, the natural disaster presents an opportunity in crisis for the US.
A unilateral - and potentially United Nations-approved - US military intervention in the name of humanitarianism could easily turn the tide against the impoverished country's unpopular military leaders, and simultaneously rehabilitate the legacy of lame-duck US President George W Bush's controversial pre-emptive military policies.
Myanmar's ruling junta has responded woefully to the cyclone disaster, costing more human lives than would have been the case with the approval of a swift international response. One week after the killer storm first hit, Myanmar's junta has only now allowed desperately needed international emergency supplies to trickle in. It continues to resist US and UN disaster relief and food aid personnel from entering the country. Officially, 60,000 people have died; the figure is probably closer to 100,000.
The US is prepared to deliver US$3.25 million in initial assistance for survivors, which if allowed by the junta could be rapidly delivered to the worst-hit areas using US Air Force and naval vessels, including the US C-130 military aircraft now in neighboring Thailand, and the USS Kitty Hawk and USS Nimitz naval warships, currently on standby in nearby waters.
With the host government's approval, the US military led the multinational emergency response to the 2004 tsunami, including in the politically sensitive, majority Muslim areas of Aceh, Indonesia. The response to Myanmar's tragedy, in comparison, is being undermined by the play of international power politics, including most notably the military government's antagonistic relations with the US.
Washington has long-held economic sanctions against the regime, which were recently enhanced through financial sanctions against individual junta members, their families and business associates. Despite the economic suffering the sanctions have had on the grassroots population, many Myanmar citizens support the measures against their perceived abusive government, according to one Myanmar researcher. Early last year, the US tried to have Myanmar's abysmal rights record put onto the UN Security Council's agenda, but the motion was later vetoed by Myanmar allies China and Russia.
In the wake of the cyclone, the criminality of the junta's callous policies has taken on new human proportions in full view of the global community. Without a perceived strong UN-led response to the natural disaster, hard new questions will fast arise about the UN's own relevance and ability to manage global calamities.
This week, French Foreign Minister Bernard Koucher suggested that the UN invoke its so-called "responsibility to protect" civilians as legitimate grounds to force aid delivery, regardless of the military government's objections. On Friday, a UN spokesman called the junta's refusal to issue visas to aid workers "unprecedented" in the history of humanitarian work.
Because of the UN's own limited powers of projection, such a response would require US military management and assets. US officials appear to be building at least a rhetorical case for a humanitarian intervention. While offering relief and aid with one hand, top US officials have with the other publicly slapped at the Myanmar government's lame response to the disaster.
Shari Villarosa, head of the US Embassy in Yangon, has challenged the veracity of the government's official death count, telling reporters that storm-related casualties could eventually exceed 100,000 at a time the junta claimed 22,500 had perished. The junta has since revised up its official death toll figure to around 60,000.
US First Lady Laura Bush, who last year publicly goaded Myanmar's population to rise up against the military junta during the "Saffron" revolution, has in the wake of the cyclone revived her criticisms, referring to the government as "inept" and claiming that despite it receiving forewarning it failed to alert its citizens of the impending cyclone.
"It should be a simple matter," said US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, referring to the junta's refusal to allow foreign aid workers into the country. "It's not a matter of politics. It's a matter of a humanitarian crisis."
Armed and ready
Should the junta continue to resist foreign assistance while social and public health conditions deteriorate in clear view of global news audiences, the moral case for a UN-approved, US-led humanitarian intervention will grow. Fistfights have already reportedly broken out over food supplies in Yangon, raising the risk that Myanmar troops could soon be called to put down unrest in the midst of a humanitarian crisis. Last September, Myanmar's army opened fire against and killed an unknown number of street demonstrators.
Apart from putting significant US military assets on standby, there are no indications yet that President George W Bush or the Pentagon is preparing a unilateral rescue operation. Yet policymakers in Washington are now no doubt weighing the potential pros and cons of a pre-emptive humanitarian mission in a geo-strategically pivotal and suddenly weakened country that Bush administration officials have recently and repeatedly referred to as an "outpost of tyranny".
Within that policy matrix, the deteriorating situation presents a unique opportunity for Bush to burnish his foreign policy legacy. Some note that a US military response to Myanmar's humanitarian crisis would follow in the footsteps of Bush's presidential father, George H W Bush, who after declaring victory over the Soviet Union's communist threat, moved to demonstrate to the post-Cold War world that US military might would be a force for global good.
That included his government's US military-led humanitarian aid mission in civil war- and famine-struck Somalia in August 1992 that morphed later in the same year into a full-blown US Marine invasion of the capital Mogadishu, including the airport and main port, to protect the integrity of future aid deliveries from marauding militias. That military mission was mostly abandoned by 1993 after fierce fighting between US troops and Somali militias, while television images of a slain US soldier being dragged through Mogadishu's streets took the idealistic edge off the supposedly humanitarian military exercise.
This time, it is almost sure-fire that Myanmar's desperate population would warmly welcome a US-led humanitarian intervention, considering that its own government is now withholding emergency supplies. Like his father then, Bush is now clearly focused on his presidential legacy, which to date will be judged harshly due to his government's controversial pre-emptive military policies, waged until now exclusively in the name of fighting global terror.
In an era when the US routinely launches pre-emptive military strikes, including its 2003 invasion of Iraq, the 2003 Predator drone assassination attack against an alleged al-Qaeda leader in Yemen, a similar drone attack in 2006 in northwestern Pakistan, and last week's attack against a reputed al-Qaeda ringleader in Somalia, it is not inconceivable that the US might yet intervene in military-run Myanmar, particularly if in the days ahead the social and political situation tilts towards anomie.
Whether or not a US military intervention in the name of humanitarianism would, as in Somalia, eventually morph into an armed attempt at regime change and nation-building would likely depend on the population's and Myanmar military's response to the first landing of US troops. Some political analysts speculate that Myanmar's woefully under-resourced and widely unpopular troops would defect en masse rather than confront US troops.
While Myanmar ally China would likely oppose a US military intervention, Beijing has so far notably goaded the junta to work with rather than against international organizations like the UN, and more to the point, it lacks the power projection capabilities to militarily challenge the US in a foreign theater. Most notably, the US would have at its disposal a globally respected and once democratically elected leader in Aung San Suu Kyi to lead a transitional government to full democracy.
Many have speculated that Myanmar's notoriously paranoid junta abruptly moved the national capital 400 kilometers north from Yangon to its mountain-rung redoubt at Naypyidaw in November 2005 due to fears of a possible pre-emptive US invasion, similar to the action against Iraq. Now, Cyclone Nagris and the government's woeful response to the disaster have suddenly made that once paranoid delusion into a strong pre-emptive possibility, one that Bush's lame-duck presidency desperately needs.
* Shawn W Crispin is Asia Times Online's Southeast Asia Editor.
'All we can do is drink whisky' - By Zao Noam
YANGON - Few people in Myanmar were prepared for the approaching apocalypse. The government-owned news station reported last Friday evening an "80% chance of heavy rain". It appeared that no one knew that a major cyclone had been ferociously whirling towards Myanmar from the Bay of Bengal (aiming at Mon, Karen and Karenni states, and the Irrawaddy and Yangon divisions), despite days of prior knowledge by those outside Myanmar.
So-called "natural" disasters are particularly shunned and censored by the reclusive and highly superstitious Myanmar military regime, as disasters could be interpreted as astrological signs of illegitimate misrule. As a result, no one was prepared due to lack of government warning and planning.
A few hours before dawn on Saturday, millions of people suddenly awoke to discover the devastating result of mixing "natural" disasters with an isolated and abusive military regime - the outcome less natural and more political. The result? As of Friday morning, the official number dead reached 60,000 (unofficially 100,000 dead with tens of thousands still missing), whole villages and townships wiped off the map, and a complete loss of physical and communication infrastructure.
Domestic news has only shown images of generals meeting with homeless villagers, rather than reports on which villages have been hit hardest, emergency relief plans, or safe centers to take refuge in. In short, the government - quite predictably - has done little so far, blocked by their own infamous red tape and lack of resources and capacity.
In the days immediately following the cyclone, no government personnel were seen by this author anywhere within the vicinity of Yangon. Most roads - both small lanes as well as major roads - were blocked by downed massive 100-year-old trees and concrete power poles. Buses were initially kept from running - keeping locals from checking up on loved ones. Only recently were train tracks partially cleared of fallen debris; the country's regional transport hub is still disabled. Almost all phone lines are down, as is electricity. In other words: Yangon, as well as neighboring divisions and states, ground to an abrupt halt on Saturday morning.
Local Burmese expressed anger at the absence of government relief, yet seemed fatalistic, even confused by this writer's question about who will help, as if the answer was obvious. One newly homeless man wandering a crowded downtown street motioned me over and said, "[Junta leader] Than Shwe is nowhere to be found here. He is hiding up in Naypyidaw [Myanmar's new capital]." Other locals, not knowing where to go or what to do, eagerly complained: "There is no one here to help us. No one comes!" A destitute woman sobbed in the middle of the street, "My house is gone. I have no money. I haven't eaten. What am I do to?" Another man wearing a well-worn lungyi grumbled matter-of-factly, "The police don't come to help."
Actually, the police did come out in small numbers, but not to help citizens. It's even debatable whether this would be a welcomed response given the bloody crackdown this past September which is still fresh in people's minds. This author spotted five police caravans driving past, full of uniformed police in riot gear. Other informants have confirmed seeing riot police driving past, including trucks of soldiers.
But so far, none of them have been seen giving a helping hand to locals in distress or clearing streets. Clearly, the government is aware that outlying townships have been leveled, and those surviving would represent a threat to "peaceful stability". In addition, many riot police vans were stationed outside all the entrances of the famous Shwedagon Pagoda, the site of violent clashes with peacefully protesting monks last September. Shwedagon Pagoda is still closed to prevent open space for a symbolic uprising.
On the fourth day after the cyclone, army and police were finally seen - in very small numbers - in the streets to help clear fallen debris. However, this was mostly limited to the wealthiest Yangon neighborhoods and the soldiers were not being fed adequately. The soldiers claimed that by late afternoon they had not yet eaten a single meal.
Dereliction of duty
The Myanmar government has yet to offer any assistance to those devastated by the cyclone, despite the vast number of sufferers and the area's vital importance to the national economy. Yangon is the center of business for the country, and the delta region provides the nation's rice.
Despite the obvious reality facing all people, and the massive scope of the unimaginable tragedy, international news - before journalists were allowed into the country - began to air footage provided by the Myanmar Ministry of Information. The provided videos showed soldiers cutting down trees blocking streets, Than Shwe addressing the military aid unit, and a momentary glimpse of a few bags of rice that were to be distributed as food aid - all meant to reassure people that "help is on its way from the government". This was propaganda, clear and simple: the people are still waiting, except those who received limited supplies for the staged films of the government's "news".
But locals already know this situation far too well. They seemed to instinctively know how to get on with it, perhaps from decades of being neglected from any beneficial government services. Communities came together and cleaned up their homes and streets as best they could - entirely households labored side-by-side at times using only kitchen knives. Downed electrical poles were pushed aside, and large trees blocking roads were slowly hacked apart to allow traffic to resume.
Neighbors helped each other fix battered roofs and displaced siding. And an interesting phenomenon has arisen in well-to-do neighborhoods where owners of big-name companies - such as military-linked tycoon Tay Zaw who heads Air Bagan and Poppa Aqua drinking water have donated their labor teams, connections, and equipment to move large trees and telephone poles to get their rich neighborhoods up and running, much to the delight of their neighbors.
This genuine camaraderie is what has enabled Yangon to get back on its feet, or at least off its knees.
Admittedly, however, community action remains limited. The junta does not legally sanction community organizing outside the junta's arms, thus severely straining grassroots mobilizing that would be prevalent in most other countries. Instead, the regime has built up its own rendition, known as the United Solidarity Development Association (USDA), which oversees most village-level functions. This is now having a disastrous result in dealing with the cyclone's aftermath. In effect, the USDA is MIA - missing in action - and communities remain unable to fill the void.
The disaster has also strained community relations in poorer parts of town, with some reports of villagers stealing each other's bits of tin roof that had blown off. Patches of metal roofing doubled, than tripled, in price (up to US$12) - much like other commodities - keeping the poor without roofing, and other essential items, despite the onset of monsoon rains.
During a voluntary community clean-up, several citizens shared thoughts on the catastrophe and its inevitable political fallout. "In [Myanmar], constitutions are very bad luck," commented an elderly Burmese woman. She spoke in reference a much-publicized and hyped constitutional referendum set for May 10 and shrouded in allegations of coercion, intimidation and vote rigging.
According to the woman, the last big storm to hit the area was in 1974, just before Myanmar was set to ratify an earlier constitution. The parallels are uncanny. Worried there could still be time to pull off the referendum, one local said with black humor," The storm came one week too early!" He may be right; the military has announced that the referendum will go ahead as planned in the rest of the country, but postponed the poll in severely impacted outlying areas until later this month.
A taxi driver - who charged double the normal fare due to skyrocketing petrol costs and uncertain supply (he had to wait in line five hours to get his petrol ration for that day) after the storm - constructed another interesting political parallel. "You know, in 8-8-88 in Yangon the military shot people and many died. Now the cyclone comes and kills all the big trees. It's just like in '88."
While eating at one of the few small restaurants still operating, a customer explained the following political innuendo with a wink, "All the 'big trees' fell down. But the 'small trees' survived. The 'small trees' have won. Very interesting, no?"
Misery behind, misery ahead
Despite the devastation, Yangon residents seem resilient and determined to get on with their lives. After all, they've had to do this during other times of unrest and deprivation. In outlying townships and the Irrawaddy division, however, it's another story: nothing left to rebuild, no place to go and nothing to eat. In Yangon, this Buddhist calm of smiling cheer and goodwill may perhaps wear thin. In a few days most people will have run out of water, having used up any that remains.
Without electricity to pump more water, people will not be able to use their bathrooms nor have water for cooking. The streets will become one big public toilet, as has already started happening since day two. People fear that their gas tanks will run out, cutting off their ability to cook. Drinking water is running out in most shops. When I asked how many weeks it would be until the electricity was back up, I was corrected emphatically, "You mean months".
This is an uncomfortable contrasts with some salaried people who're going shopping to buy fancy high-heeled shoes, decorative flowers and the latest pirated karaoke CDs in the market, as if the temporary closing of offices and schools has presented a joyful opportunity to go on a spending spree. Whether local residents really believe that all will be fine, or if they are floating in an air of denial, remains to be seen.
One Myanmar office worker gave this desperate plea: "I have no roof on my small wooden house. We lost everything. What can we do? No one comes to help. Please get this story out of Burma [Myanmar]. We can only just sit and pray. This is all we Burmese can do." The following day the same person asked me in all seriousness what had happened to the rest of the region, as little news has been made public. On informing her, she inquired how she could leave the country as a refugee. I didn't have the heart to tell her that being born in Myanmar is a one-way ticket.
Meanwhile, the government has agreed to allow international aid to trickle into the country, a rare occurrence in isolated Myanmar. But this only pertains to receiving emergency supplies, which are apparently arriving in limited supply by airplane (Yangon's port is totally destroyed), with government agencies in charge of distribution - a hopeless strategy that will greatly hamper any effective aid. It remains to be seen logistically how this will work; whether foreign aid workers will get access to previously off-limits areas, which government agencies they will have to work through, and how much cooperation they will receive.
So far, though, there has only been unofficial strategizing and needs assessments by some non-governmental organizations in Yangon, which are doing their best to deliver required emergency supplies. Emergency aid funds are desperately needed, but problems of "absorptive capacity" remain endemic in this war-torn nation.
The fear is that soon wells for drinking water will run dry, food rations will fall too low to feed the hungry and homeless, and cholera will break out. Then, homeless villagers whose huts were blown down in outlying areas of the city will begin marching towards Yangon, and everyone will be desperate and angry at the lack of assistance. This is the recipe for another attempted uprising, not unlike that in September 2007, which if recent history taught us anything, will be violently squashed by military force. The riot police are positioned en masse around Yangon to intimidate, and local residents know and fear their capabilities.
But for the time being, the atmosphere in Yangon is one of apathy, perhaps learned over decades of continual disappointment caused by their rulers.
Three middle-aged men, huddled in a tumbledown previously thatch-roofed bamboo noodle shop, beckoned me to their side of a tree-strewn road. "I was here during the cyclone. It was crazy! I am OK, but my shop is gone, and I have nothing now. Look, I have no money," said one of them, revealing an almost-empty, mud-caked Myanmar whisky bottle. He smiled, "So, my friends and I drink - the only thing we have left."
* Zao Noam is a Yangon-based researcher. He is writing under a pseudonym to protect his identity.
The unravelling of the burmese junta
The Nation: May 10, 2008
Today's referendum aside, Cyclone Nargis might spell the end of the generals' heartless rule
Today a portion of Burma's population will vote in a nationwide referendum on the country's new charter, imposed on them by the military junta. Of course, they don't have much of a choice. To vote against the junta is dangerous and anything can happen. Not all voters will vote today, as those in areas devastated by Cyclone Nargis will vote at a later date.
Despite the UN's appeal for it to concentrate on helping the victims of the cyclone last weekend, the junta is adamant that the referendum continue despite growing problems resulting from the disaster. Apparently, the junta's leaders put their people's well-being second to their political schemes. The generals are concerned about their political survival and everything must go according to plan.
In the Buddhist world, whatever you do, whether actions that bring you merit or evil deeds, will come back to you. Nobody can escape the results of one's own actions or, as we call it, destiny. In this sense, one may regard the cyclone tragedy as an act of "karma", because for the Buddhist Burmese junta it was an act of punishment for all the bad deeds they have inflicted on the Burmese people over nearly two decades, not to mention their killing of innocent monks last September, which is the greatest evil of all. Indeed, we might witness the unravelling of the regime led by these heartless junta leaders who have ruled Burma without mercy. Mother Nature can unleash its power in unimaginable ways.
UN agencies and select international organisations have dispatched emergency aid and humanitarian assistance over the past few days, but more would be coming from around the world if junta leaders allowed it. At the moment, despite pledges from Burmese authorities that they would facilitate the entry of foreign aid workers into the country, hundreds of them remain stranded in Thailand and other neighbouring countries. Further delays could worsen the situation and further increase the death toll, which is already believed to have exceeded 100,000.
At this juncture, all donor countries have put their political positions aside, especially the US and EU countries. They have come together with the goal of helping the Burmese people as their top priority. China has been no exception; it has moved quickly to aid Burma. Beijing knows full well that foreign aid if unchecked would further complicate the political situation in the future. But then, to cope with a disaster like this no single country can effectively deal with the myriad problems involved. Only a well-coordinated and sustainable plan can alleviate the hardships the cyclone has caused.
Along with the international community, Asean as a group can do more than its members can individually. The grouping is stuck with its non-interference principle, even in a situation like this, and Asean is unable to do anything collectively. Asean Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan has already appealed to Burma's leaders to cooperate with Asean and international donors. During the East Timor crisis in 1999, Indonesia showed the Asean spirit by inviting Asean peacekeeping efforts to help with the situation there. That helped ease the peacekeeping operations and the overall peace process in the months that followed.
It is about time for Burma to display the same solidarity with Asean. The grouping can only move when Burma invites it in. If that does not happen, only individual member countries can provide minimal relief assistance. Other regional organisations - such as the EU and the African Union - have mechanisms in place to provide emergency relief for member countries.
People's lives matter more than the junta. By being on the ground in Burma, Asean could use its reputation to draw in additional aid. It is absurd indeed to think that Asean as a group cannot do anything. The Asean Charter, which is waiting for ratification by all, will mean nothing if the Burmese people continue to suffer and die due to the intransigence of the junta. Asean's leaders should act in solidarity to bring the burden of responsibility to bear on the junta. A failure to do so will hurt Asean and its future.
Junta Holds Referendum in Cyclone Aftermath - Moe Yu May
Shortly after sunrise on Saturday, a few men and women in this town on the banks of a river broke their morning routines to cast ballots -- an act unusual in the military-ruled country.
The men, mostly middle-aged, had come to the polling station after finishing their dawn exercises. The women had arrived on their way to the open market, carrying empty baskets. Others who trickled in during the rest of the day came in small groups of three or four. The voting was far from brisk.
But this vote on May 10 was not to elect a new government in military-ruled Burma, or Myanmar. It was a ballot for a referendum to approve a new constitution that the junta was forcing on a beleaguered people. The last time the people had voted was for the parliamentary elections in 1990 when the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) claimed a landslide victory -- only to see it rudely brushed aside by the military.
"Through this vote we have to show our decision who we want," said a 40-year-old voter who owned a shop in this town, west of the former capital Rangoon. "We are ordinary citizens, not those with authority. I only want to work with freedom."
Such talk of freedom in a country that has been under military rule since a 1962 coup was not the only concern on the mind of this voter, who spoke on condition of anonymity. He, like many others in Pathein, was troubled by something more tragic: the powerful cyclone that swept through the Irrawaddy delta a short distance to the south a week ago, leaving between 66,000 to 100,000 people dead or missing, according to official and diplomatic estimates.
"When I think of the victims, I feel angry, because of the irresponsible way the government has responded to the cyclone,"he told IPS after casting his ballot in a state high school.
He does not have to go far to learn about such victims of Cyclone Nargis, which made landfall on May 3 with wind speeds of up to 190 km per hour, pushing up a wall of sea water that rose four meters high and crashed on the flat, river-fed regions of the delta.
This town has been steadily filling up with men, women and children who survived the ravages of the cyclone and made long journeys with little state support to find shelter and relief.
Then there is the story at general hospital in this town, where close to 180 of its 400 beds are occupied by cyclone victims, most of whom had been admitted two days after Burma's worst natural disaster in living memory struck. Some were fortunate, getting a place in the few helicopters the junta had assigned to help the victims. Others had to be carried to where they can take a three-hour boat ride to relative safety.
"There were many people injured in our village," says Myint Oo, a fisherman from Labutta, one of the worst hit townships in the delta. "I was taken two days later in a military helicopter."
Yet the pain from his injured back is not all that troubles the 48-year-old. He is uncertain about 30 members of his extended family in a part of the township where some 4,000 people lived. "After the storm I only saw about 100 or 150 people, but nobody from my family," he revealed.
What saved him was a palm tree. He had held on to it as the furious waters from the cyclone surged around him.
It was out of concern for survivors like Myint Oo and for the thousands who died in the seven townships in the Irrawaddy delta and in the 40 townships in Rangoon that an international appeal was made to the junta to postpone the referendum. Even U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon added his voice to the call.
The junta refused to budge. It stuck to its original plan to conduct the referendum on the chosen date after announcing that the people in the affected areas will be able to vote on a new date, May 24.
Such a move confirmed a view gaining ground among angry Burmese within the country that the junta is more interested in enforcing the approval of the country's third constitution at the expense of helping the victims of Cyclone Nargis.
A source with close connections to highly-placed officials within the regime revealed to IPS that such a view is grounded in reality. The country's strong man, Senior Gen. Than Shwe, had taken a decision "not to use many troops and financial resources to help the people, since he wanted to use many of them for the referendum," he said.
In fact, the junta's refusal to postpone the referendum, in the wake of last week's unprecedented natural disaster, strengthens the case that the military leaders are desperate to secure a victory' and gain political legitimacy.
Observers say that the elections will do little to restore civilian rule since the proposed constitution guarantees 25 percent of parliamentary seats to the military. It would also bar NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi from holding public office.
Although the regime refused to accept international aid, for days after Cyclone Nargis struck, state-run television has been showing images of top generals, including Than Shwe, distributing boxes of aid material, the markings on them changed suitably, to cyclone victims.
"The main reason the regime stuck to its original plans was to gain legitimacy and the people's support for its government," Win Min, a Burmese national security expert lecturing at Payap University, in northern Thailand, told IPS correspondent in Bangkok Marwaan Macan-Markar over the phone.
"They also showed what they consider more important, their priorities," he added. "The regime is more interested in holding on to power than in caring about the people's suffering," Win Min said.
Evidence of that was amply displayed on the referendum day across many part of the country, according to sources inside and outside Burma that IPS spoke with. In the Arakan State, in western Burma, local authorities had gone from house to house pressurising people to vote yes', while in a town in south-eastern Burma ballot boxes were stuffed with yes' votes before polls closed.
Attempts by the NLD to observe voting close to Rangoon were thwarted, too. A car that NLD members were travelling in to visit polling stations was stopped. Other NLD members have reported that authorities in some provincial towns had "forced" voters to vote yes' after confiscating their registration or identity cards.
"It was not a free poll,"a visibly angry 63-year-old woman said after leaving her polling station. "An official in the polling station came to where I was to write my vote and forced me to vote yes'."
Cyclone Nargis Exposes Junta's Anti-People Attitude - Larry Jagan
IPS: 7/5/08 Credit: Mizzima News
Cyclone Nargis -- Burma's worst natural disaster in living memory -- has reinforced the image of the military in that country as a force interested solely in perpetuating its grip on power, regardless of costs to the people it claims to protect.
Official reports say upwards of 30,000 people have died in the May 2 cyclone, 40,000 have gone missing and a million more rendered homeless. But more than providing relief the military government seems concerned with carrying through a referendum that will enhance its hold over the country.
The only concession to a people reeling from the devastation caused by the cyclone is a shifting of polling day from May 10, as scheduled, to May 25 in some of the worst affected areas like Rangoon and the Irrawaddy Delta.
In Rangoon, the old capital, people are beginning to vent their anger at the military authorities' indifferent response to the disaster.
"Where were they (military) when we needed them most -- to clear up the mess on the streets, provide shelter and water, and protect us when the storm struck," a Burmese middle-aged housewife told IPS over phone, on condition of anonymity. "It took them a day to crack down on the monks (in September), but four days after the cyclone they're still nowhere to be seen," she added angrily.
Most people in Rangoon feel the same, according to diplomats and journalists based there, contacted by IPS. "It's the monks who have been leading the clean-up," said an elderly retired civil servant. "God bless them."
Pictures of soldiers removing fallen trees and clearing roads in Rangoon on the state-run television have further infuriated many in the city. "This is pure propaganda and it's far from the truth," e-mailed a Burmese journalist, asking not to be identified for fear of the consequences. "Why do foreign broadcasters show them too --Burmese government propaganda is a disgrace enough to journalism," he fumed.
"I saw some soldiers getting onto a truck yesterday," said a 50-year-old resident. "They had no sweat on their shirts, despite what was shown on TV!"
"My wife saw three truckloads of soldiers parked in front of a fallen tree, none of them got down to remove it," he added.
Worse, there is evidence emerging that the military authorities had ample warning of a storm brewing in the Bay of Bengal but chose to ignore, or even suppress, it.
The Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) which keeps a close track of geo-climatic events in the Bay of Bengal and releases warnings not only to provinces on the Indian east coast but also to vulnerable littoral countries said it warned Burmese authorities of Cyclone Nargis' formation and possible approach as early as on Apr. 26.
"We continuously updated authorities in Myanmar (as Burma is officially called) and on Apr. 30 we even provided them a details of the likely route, speed and locations of landfall," IMD director B.P. Yadav told IPS correspondent in New Delhi, Ranjit Devraj.
Burma's meteorology department did post a warning on its official website on Apr. 27 but no effort was made to disseminate information to the people, much less to carry out evacuations along the coastline or from the islands on the Irrawaddy Delta.
By the time state-run media, which has been continuously spewing propaganda and exhorting the public to vote yes' to Saturday's constitution referendum, issued its first cyclone alert on Friday afternoon it was too late for the hapless residents of Rangoon.
Most of the city's residents are reported to be too shocked to do anything other than try to survive and protect their families. On the outskirts of the city, across the river where the poorer working class live, or lived, the flimsily built houses have all been flattened. Everyone in Rangoon is frantically searching for clean water, according to eyewitnesses.
The cyclone, with winds reaching over 200 km per hour, ripped through the commercial centre of Rangoon, leaving it looking like a war zone. Trees were uprooted and roofs of house and buildings were ripped off. The storm blacked out electricity and communications.
The densely populated area to the east of Rangoon, the Irrawaddy Delta, called the rice bowl of Burma, was the hardest hit. The cyclone whipped up tidal waves over two metres high and most of this low-lying land is still flooded.
More than 20 million people are believed to live in this fertile area of the country. Without any prior warning, they were left to the mercy of the furious winds and water surges.
The death toll is set to rise even further, according to aid workers in the country. It could reach quarter of a million people, a Burmese relief worker told IPS. "This is the worst disaster to hit Burma in living memory, it's our tsunami," he said, asking not to be identified. "We may never know how many people perished."
International aid agencies and the United Nations are still on standby, waiting for the junta to give the green signal to mount relief and rehabilitation efforts. Experienced rapid deployment teams have been on alert and waiting for several days now.
"Our biggest concern is that the aftermath of the cyclone could be more deadly than the storm itself," Richard Horsey, spokesman for the regional U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) in Bangkok, told IPS." The key focus now is getting clean water and medical supplies to the affected areas as quickly as possible to prevent a second wave of deadly epidemics from water-borne diseases."
Planeloads of relief supplies and equipment were reported arriving in Rangoon since Tuesday. Much of that is bilateral assistance from India, Thailand and Japan, though some U.N. aid agencies also managed to land supplies like plastic sheeting for make-shift accommodation, tents, mosquito nets, medical supplies and water purification tablets.
The International Committee for Red Cross has sent medical supplies while the U.N.'s main food aid organisation, the World Food Programme (WFP), has also managed to fly in extra supplies of rice and high-energy biscuits. "We hope to fly in more assistance in the next few days," WFP's regional spokesman, Paul Risely, told IPS." But the challenge will be to get this assistance to the affected areas in the Irrawaddy Delta because of road blockages.
The U.N. has begun to distribute food to the homeless in Rangoon. "WFP food assistance has now begun to reach persons who are without shelter or food resources in and around Yangon (Rangoon)," said Chris Kaye, WFP country director. Aid agencies are currently trying to reach the delta, and the government has provided a few helicopters and boats to help the delivery of relief materials.
The government belatedly realised that action is needed to prevent hoarding and price speculation. "We are coordinating and cooperating with businessmen. We appeal to entrepreneurs and businessmen not to cash in the disaster," Burma's information minister Maj. Gen. Kyaw Hsan told a press conference.
But for most people in Burma this appeal simply added insult to injury, as they blame the government for the skyrocketing prices of staples -- this was what gave rise to the massive street protests led by monks last year that were brutally suppressed.
"In Rangoon people feel they have lost everything and have nothing more to lose," said a young activist student. A repeat of September's anti-price rise protests is increasingly likely, especially if the government continues to disregard the main concerns of the people crippled by the cyclone.
"The military has shown its true colours that it has no concern for the plight of the people," said Win Min, an independent Burmese academic based in Chiang Mai town, Thailand. "This could easily be the final nail in the military's coffin; it is now no longer if' but when'," he added.