Tens of Thousands Die in Burma Cyclone As Junta Stonewalls on Foreign Aid

You’d think that living under a brutal dictatorship would be bad enough and that God would cut you some slack in other areas. No such luck. The universe doesn’t operate that way, as Myanmar found out nearly a week ago when Cyclone Nargis devastated Burma (the country’s name before the ruling military junta changed it).

The cyclone ripped across Burma’s agricultural heartland with violent winds that reached speeds of 193km/h, destroying buildings and fields, toppling trees and washing away roads in the vital rice-growing area of the Irrawaddy delta. Entire villages were swept away. Whole families have been wiped out.

Foreign aid agencies have reported scenes of devastation, with corpses still littering the rice fields and desperate survivors without food or clean drinking water. They are either without shelter or crammed into whatever structures remain standing.

Anders Ladekarl, head of the Danish Red Cross, said of the dead:

Many are not buried and lie in the water. They have started rotting and the stench is beyond words.

Early reports from aid workers in Burma have concluded that as many as 50,000 people died in Saturday’s cyclone, although the actual death toll could eventually exceed 100,000, and two to three million are homeless.

The official death count stood at just under half that two days ago, at around 22,500 people dead (and counting).

What is sure, however, is the repressive policies put in place by the ruling junta surely added to the scale of the destruction. From most reports, the coastal villages most vulnerable to the storm surge were not given adequate warning, reflecting the tight hold of the regime on information, even that which could have saved tens of thousands of lives. Indian meteorologists claim that they gave official warning to the Burmese government of the incoming storm two days before it landed. And now, nearly a week after the storm, the paranoid military government has been hindering relief efforts by throwing bureaucratic roadblocks against the foreign relief workers they let in, like processing visa requirements at a snail’s pace .

After snubbing aid offers from the U.S. and other governments it considers hostile, Burma’s isolationist regime indicated that it wants foreign relief supplies but not foreign aid workers. In an official statement, the government expressed gratitude to the international community for its assistance but it emphasized that the best way to help was just to send in material rather than personnel.

What this translates to is more deaths and agony for the people of Burma. One can say that this is no time for politics since people’s lives are at stake, but Myanmar is a different case altogether. The military doesn’t care how many more lives are lost, for as long as it maintains its image of being on top of the situation. According to Time magazine:

By rejecting the U.S. aid offer, the junta is refusing to take advantage of Washington’s enormous ability to deliver aid quickly, which was evident during the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that killed 230,000 people in a dozen nations.

The first foreign military aid following that disaster reached the hardest-hit nation, Indonesia, two days later.

It was the biggest U.S. military operation in Southeast Asia since the Vietnam War.
With the Irrawaddy delta’s roads washed out and the infrastructure in shambles, large swaths of the region are accessible only by air, something few other countries are equipped to handle as well as the United States.

Tim Costello, chief executive of World Vision Australia, said that “it’s certainly the case that the Americans, as they showed in the tsunami, have extraordinary capacity.”

The U.S. government, which has strongly criticized the junta’s suppression of pro-democracy activists, will have to convince the generals that Washington has no political agenda, Costello said.

“Clearly we all know the political context there, and I think it’s going to take a little bit more time for a breakthrough,” he said.

Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej of Thailand offered to negotiate on Washington’s behalf to persuade Burma’s government to accept U.S. aid.

France is arguing that the U.N. has the power to intervene without the junta’s approval to help civilians under a 2005 agreement that the world body has a “responsibility to protect” people when governments fail to do it. That agreement did not mention natural disasters.

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner and British Foreign Secretary David Miliband asked Burma’s junta to “lift all restrictions on the distribution of aid”.

The Association of Southeast Nations appealed to the international community to send relief supplies through Thailand.

The Association of Southeast Nations appealed to the international community to send relief supplies through Thailand.

“Please keep the help coming, keep the contributions coming, and if you have to, go to Thailand, park there and wait for redistribution from there,” said ASEAN secretary-general Surin Pitsuwan.

The silver lining, however difficult it is to look at the bright side at the moment, is that Cyclone Nargis might accomplish what the United Nations and decades of outside political and economic pressure have failed to — break the military’s 46-year stranglehold on Burma and usher in a new era of democracy and greater cooperation with the outside world. But this doesn’t seem to be happening for now. As noted by Ms. Aung-Thwin in the Wall Street Journal:

The tragedy that has befallen Burma could still be the catalyst needed to end the country’s long isolation from the rest of the world. But in order for that to happen, the regime will have to trust the good intentions of foreign governments and aid workers. In return, critics of the regime will have to do their best to focus on addressing the massive and immediate needs of humanitarian aid.

Sadly, as days pass and the death toll climbs, this looks more and more like wishful thinking.

One has to ask, which is the greater cataclysm, the cyclone or military junta ruling the country ?

The U.N. has suspended further aid to Burma, as Myanmar’s junta seized U.N. aid shipments headed for hungry and homeless survivors of last week’s devastating cyclone.

U.N. World Food Program spokesman Paul Risley said:

All of the food aid and equipment that we managed to get in has been confiscated. For the time being, we have no choice but to end further efforts to bring critical needed food aid into Myanmar at this time. The frustration caused by what appears to be a paperwork delay is unprecedented in modern humanitarian relief efforts. It’s astonishing.

Myanmar held a referendum on Saturday to approve a new army-drafted constitution, which critics say will further entrench military governance, ignoring calls from the outside world to postpone the vote amid the devastation wreaked by Cyclone Nargis.

State-run TV repeatedly told citizens it was their “patriotic duty” to approve the new constitution that enshrines a dominant role for the military, which has ruled the country of 53 million since a 1962 coup.

Pinoy journalist and blogger Roby Alampay, writing for the New York Times, explains out how the curtailment of press freedom and access to information by the Myanmar junta compounded the effects of the cyclone and ensures that “the Burmese will continue to suffer horrors that are literally untold”.

Newsweek sees a possible upside to the relief effort in Burma even as the death count reaches 128,000, according to the Red Cross, and the junta’s strategy of strangling foreign aid triggers what the U.N. Office of Humanitarian Affairs calls “a second wave of deaths.”

The Chinese rescue efforts ought to shame, or at least instruct, Burma.

Tales of survival in Myanmar.

The case for directly airdropping relief goods to affected areas in Burma.

Raul Pangalangan examines how much of the death and destruction is caused by nature and how much by human bungling and flawed politics.

2 thoughts on “Tens of Thousands Die in Burma Cyclone As Junta Stonewalls on Foreign Aid”

  1. “One has to ask, which is the greater cataclysm, the cyclone or military junta ruling the country?”

    The military junta, of course, worsened the lashing of the cyclone. That’s after Nargis whipped everything else that stood in its way in Burma. Makes me really think about the cases when the wrath of man goes beyond the wrath of nature.

  2. True, SpliceandDice. The military junta stands accused of crimes against humanity and war crimes, particularly in the ethnic areas of eastern Burma against the Shan, Mon and Karen peoples and in western Myanmar, the Rohingya Muslim minority. They are routinely subject to forced labor, arbitrary taxation, extortion and land confiscation, restrictions on freedom of movement, persecution of political and community leaders, unlawful detention, torture and extermination campaigns. Rape as a form of political coercion is commonplace.

    In addition, the military junta has imposed stringent restrictions on the freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and freedom of assembly on the rest of the Burmese population and has denied the exercise of most basic political and civil rights. For example, the possession of an unregistered fax machine is punishable by a prison sentence of up to 15 years. This in a predominantly Buddhist country, which preaches tolerance and compassion.

    Its time for the U.N. and ASEAN to step up the pressure and demand immediate reforms, under the threat of political and economic isolation. We should stop treating the vicious military junta with kid gloves.

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