Agam's Gecko
Monday, May 19, 2008
Burmese monks at UN
Buddhist monks from Burma begin fasting at UN headquarters in New York on May 15,2008, hoping to push the UN into providing sufficient, immediate aid to their country.
Photo: AP / Seth Wenig

raumatized Burmese cyclone survivors are seeing and hearing restless ghosts in the night, crying out for help. But it isn't these survivors who are losing touch with reality -- the ruling junta seems to be living in a different dimension altogether. How out of touch are they?
"We have already finished our first phase of emergency relief. We are going onto the second phase, the rebuilding stage," state television quoted Prime Minister Thein Sein as telling his Thai counterpart this week.
The "relief phase" is complete, is it? And people who see things differently are to be arrested, are they? These guys and the Chinese regime in Tibet are sounding more alike every single day. A cyclone victim and member of the National League for Democracy made an attempt to meet with UN officials in Rangoon.
At 4’oclock this evening, Daw Khin Win Kyi was arrested for attempting to tell the sufferings of refugees to senior government officials, diplomats and UN officials who were inspecting the living condition of storm victims with 15 other women, a local resident told DVB.

"She wanted the senior officials to know the sufferings of the people and wanted to tell them face to face and went to wait at the route of the official entourage. She told officials at Ward – 17 to let her see the senior officials, and the police told her that they could not let her in, and a shouting match followed. Then, the police sergeant punched her, dragged her away and handcuffed her."
Anyone who claims that everything is not progressing in a quite excellent fashion, will not be tolerated. Don't have any shelter over your head? That's not in our field of responsibility.
At nearby Daw Pon, refugees who were sheltering in a storehouse were also driven out into the rain, a refugee said.

"We told them that we have nowhere to live. They said, you can go anywhere you like. If you don’t, we will ask the army to remove you tonight, the ward authority chairman Nay Lin Aung said to us."
A resident of Pyapon, in the Irrawaddy Delta tells Radio Free Asia that many rural areas have yet to see any foreign aid. The authorities are concentrating on assisting military families, although the state-run television shows officials, even the Prime Minister carrying dried noodles. Doesn't this reach those in need?
Interviewee: No, Sir. The dried noodles that they said was unloaded from the helicopters turned out to be dried noodles from Win Thuzar store, the kind that’s worth 50 a packet. We’ve only seen that kind. General Maung Maung Aye’s brother, Ko Soe, died in the storm. The aid goes to them. Their relatives get rice bags. That’s all they do. They don’t do anything for the general public.

Interviewer: Are they giving these things free or selling them?

Interviewee: They’re still unloading from the helicopters. There’s no plan to distribute them to the people. We’ve only seen them helping the military families, like the relatives and siblings of 55th and 66th division commanders.

Interviewer: So what’s the situation with the victims?

Interviewee: The victims are just waiting for groups that would like to donate. The USDA is not doing anything. There are no groups from the State.
Like the aid from the people of Thailand, re-labeled as the generous donation of Lieutenant-General So-and-so, most of the "official help" the Burmese people are shown on their media is completely faked, and it's been that way since the day after the storm.
"They’re faking it everywhere. They fake it by video taping, and then leaving that area. They’re just looking for an opportunity to video tape when authorities come. People are suffering from the storm. They are building elaborate stages, with velvet backdrops, and writing things like who is donating what for the storm victims. They want to make it elaborate. They don’t actually look after the people who are suffering. The generals are on these stages, looking grand, with guns around their waists."
In the government's storage depots around Rangoon there are huge stocks of rice, hundreds of thousands of bags. Is this for the hungry displaced survivors?
Interviewee: That’s for export. The company owned by Aung Thet Mann, son of Thura Shwe Mann, is doing that. It’s not for distribution to people.
Burma's state-run media nearly doubled its reported number of dead and missing on Friday, to a combined total of around 135,000. Aid delays and obstruction, and a confirmed oubreak of cholera could push the figure much higher. But the junta proudly boasted of a 92.4 % "win" in its sham referendum on May 10, while forcing thousands of displaced people out of their temporary shelters.

Monastery shelter
A man, three children and their best friend take refuge at a monastery near Rangoon, May 16,2008. The displaced are being forced out of such refuges by the military junta.
Photo: AFP
Shelters in hard-hit Bogalay are being shut down by soldiers, who are forcing the victims to make a choice: either be shipped to other parts of the country, or return to their destroyed villages. It's not much of a choice.
So far, more than 300 storm victims have been placed without food or other assistance in a refugee camp on Mein-ma-hla Island, despite a build-up of privately donated rescue aid and food supplies in warehouses and Chinese temples in the city, Burmese sources said.
Emergency, life-giving help was used as currency to "win" the junta's "referendum." A man from Bogalay described the barter system.
The man added that when teachers from Than Lyin asked the authorities to help them with roof repairs, they were told they could have rice and other assistance in return for "yes" votes in a national referendum, from teachers, students, and their entire extended families.
But this was going on not only in the remote places, and not just over something to eat. Do you want to keep your job?
"My older sisters have to stay at their schools," the Rangoon woman said. "The education directors have told them that they’d have to vote yes. They said they’d have to vote yes, and they’d know if they had not. They had all the lists," she said.

"All the staff members had to be on their side."
The notorious USDA has been seen selling bolts of waterproof canvas to the Chinese shops in Bogalay, to be sold on to those desperate to get out of the continuing downpours. The material is obviously from foreign donations. In Rangoon's Chinatown and other city markets, foreign-donated mosquito nets and food are being sold for profit.

The military has tightened the security ring around Rangoon, redoubling their efforts to make sure foreigners don't see what's going on. It makes me wonder how my friend, who scored a visa to get in last week, is doing. If one wants out of the city, it would appear you'd need to smuggle yourself like a sack of contraband.

Even a reporter who was heading north out of the city, in the opposite direction from the delta, was told, "Foreigners can't go this way," at a police checkpoint.

The junta has banned the importation of much needed communications equipment, as its children begin to starve.
The U.N. report said all communications equipment used by foreign agencies must be purchased through Myanmar's Ministry of Posts and Communications — with a maximum of 10 telephones per agency — for $1,500 each. Importing equipment is not allowed.
The Save the Children aid agency said yesterday that thousands of young children are facing starvation without some very quick action.
"We are extremely worried that many children in the affected areas are now suffering from severe acute malnourishment, the most serious level of hunger," said Jasmine Whitbread, who heads the agency's operation in Britain. "When people reach this stage, they can die in a matter of days."
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown told the BBC, "This is inhuman." Burma's state-run television played scenes of generals comforting relaxed people inside sparkling new tents, and three locations were prepared for a staged show for diplomats ferried in by helicopter to see the progress. US Ambassador Shari Villarosa said, "It was a show. That's what they wanted us to see."

Starvation is only the beginning. In a weakened state, the young ones are prone to pneumonia, given that without shelter they can't even get dry. It will be wet for the next few months; cholera, dengue fever and malaria could explode. Burma's health system, the second worst in the world, can't possibly cope with this crisis.

The French Navy ship FSS Mistral, carrying 1,500 tons of food and medicine, equipped with doctors, helicopters and small boats capable of penetrating the hardest hit delta areas, is now in sight of the devastation zone. The junta refuses to allow it to do anything. France's UN ambassador, Jean-Maurice Ripert says the refusal "could lead to a true crime against humanity." He was interrupted during a closed meeting of the UN General Assembly by Burma's representative, who accused France of deploying a "warship" to his country.

The junta insists the French aid be unloaded in Rangoon, in order that it can be reloaded onto small trucks, which require teams of men to push them to get them started (and then presumably driven to warehouses where the best stuff can be taken by the military for its own use or sold for profit). Ripert called this detour "nonsense" and "unacceptable." Burma's ambassador was not available for public comment.

France has been pushing for UN Security Council authorization to deliver help to the afflicted, but it is being blocked by China, Russia, South Africa and others. Invocation of the Responsibility to Protect is limited to "crimes against humanity" such as genocide or ethnic cleansing. Ripert says this is because no one ever contemplated such a situation as they face today.
"It's true ... that natural catastrophes were not included because at the time nobody thought that any government would dare to refuse some help to its own population in case of natural catastrophes," Ripert said.
An emergency meeting of ASEAN foreign ministers is taking place today to consider the issue. (ASEAN has announced that it will be "taking the lead" -- whatever that means -- but will have "no uncontrolled access" -- and we do know what that means.) Senior General Than Shwe was coaxed out of hiding on Monday, and was seen on television touring some damaged areas.

The US military had been able to bring in 21 C-130 flights as of Saturday, about a week since the first flight was permitted. They're flying out of Utapao, on Thailand's eastern seaboard, and from an emergency headquarters at Khon Kaen, in the northeast. The UN believes 24 C-130's per day are required to meet the need.

Just resting
A child sleeps under a straw mat next to the road, near Rangoon on May 16, 2008
Photo: REUTERS / Stringer
Asia hand Shawn Crispin, writing in Asia Times, says the moral case for unilateral military intervention has grown. Acquiescence to the junta's rules has clearly led to some proportion of international good-will being sold for profit, kept for military elites, or used for political purposes. Many of the deaths which have occurred and will occur could have been prevented. The junta would rather (tens of? hundreds of?) thousands more should die, than it should lose a little "face." However hard I try, I can't seem to make sense of this calculation. How much more "face" could they lose than with what they're doing at present?

The foreign assistance bonanza may not only have been fueling greed (for profits, for referendum support), writes Crispin, but used as insurance against dissatisfaction by the military's rank and file. And some of it is even being sold outside the country.
[A Western diplomat] said that some foreign aid, particularly high-quality Western-made mosquito nets and blankets, have been diverted and are now on sale in neighboring southwestern China, where consumer purchasing power is stronger than in Myanmar. "The government is stealing aid on arrival," said the diplomat. "Many ministers see this as a pay day, a godsend, for greasing their patronage networks."
For the military leaders who run this country, the current situation is more of a security crisis than a humanitarian one, says Crispin. The survivors who find themselves herded out of shelters run by monks or local volunteers and into ones run by the military, find themselves treated more as prisoners than as victims receiving a kind, helping hand. Ethnic minorities present in the affected areas are getting even shorter shrift.

Crispin also recalls the bizarre justification for inaction used by China at the UN last week, as it blocked more insistent efforts to use the UN's responsibility to temporarily override the principle of sovereignty.
Unfortunately that won't happen any time soon due to China's intransigence and veto power on the Security Council. During a UN session earlier this week, China's deputy ambassador made a spirited case against invoking the principle to force aid on Myanmar, arguing preposterously that nobody invoked the principle when France suffered from a recent heat wave which killed thousands of its citizens.
I wonder if he made that preposterous argument before or after the earthquake.

A few air-drops into a desperate region under the control of a potentially hostile military will do no good, and may make matters worse. It's clear that the UN is powerless, with China and Russia tying the hands of the Security Council.

A "coalition of the compassionate" is the only hope left for many hundreds of thousands of people now left sick and hungry, and out in the monsoon rains. I see no logical argument against Crispin's conclusion, that only the US military has what it would take to carry this off. Surely every civilised country would be with them in the effort.


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