Agam's Gecko
Sunday, May 11, 2008
Junta aid delivery
"Alright, boys! We're all loaded up, let's get this aid delivered!" Rangoon airport, May 10, 2008.
Photo: AP

mid numerous reports of cheating and intimidation during yesterday's referendum voting in most parts of Burma, the ruling generals claimed a "massive turnout of citizens." In a country where millions are now seeking drinkable water, food and shelter, ballot papers were so plentiful it's a pity they weren't edible.

Junta mouthpiece daily, the New Light of Myanmar said voting had been so popular that some polling places had to extend voting hours to accommodate them all. The democratic exile media reported very light turnout, cheating, intimidation, and that most polling places had closed by 11 am.
Officials then went to the homes of people who had not voted and made them fill in registration forms indicating they had handed in ballots that had already been filled in with a "yes" tick.
At polling places in many townships across a variety of regions of the country, officials handed out ready-filled ballot papers to arriving voters. Many people complained that their vote casting was closely watched by officials, or USDA and Swan-Ar-Shin militia thugs.

Democratic Voice of Burma gathered together some of the distressed voices in a traumatized nation. An NLD official in Mandalay:
"In some areas they announced on the loudspeaker that if you put a cross to vote NO, you will be given 3-years prison sentence and fined 100,000 kyat in accordance with the law...when casting the ballots, the guards and officials manning the polling stations follow voters into the voting booths, they themselves tick (YES) for the voters and the like... when someone voted NO with a cross, they were forced to correct it…
The voting clerks would tell you where to put your tick when handing over the paper. Some people had hands full of ballots, and cast votes for an entire household. In some villages, all the ballot papers were pre-filled, and voters only provided the papers' transportation from official to ballot box. A resident of Shan State:
They also told us to vote YES. If we didn't, they would interrogate us and deal with us later, they said... Some people didn’t know what to do and were told to vote YES, and if they refused their votes were declared void...
Another "No" voter in upper Burma told DVB that people were told to "tick" this box (the "tick" means "yes", an "x" means "no"), then place the ballot in one of the boxes designated for "yes" or "no." But the boxes did not represent "yes" or "no." In some villages, people were summoned the day before voting day and told to sign a ledger, and put a "tick" in a "yes" column. No voting paper, that was it. "You all have voted yes. Now go home," the officials told them.

Advance votes were procured up to a week beforehand, in house-to-house visits by the authorities. While this was going on, cyclone survivors are begging for official assistance. In Magwe Division a village chairman told all the people to vote the night before -- he marked all the papers "yes" by his own hand, then closed the polling station at 7:30 am on voting day.

Than Shwe suddenly reappeared from hiding on voting day, with scenes of himself and other high ranking officials appearing continuously on state television, as they presided over ceremonial hand-overs of supplies to representatives of Burma's neglected citizenry. At a rate of one little box per photo-op, this could take a while.

Thai Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej made an announcement last week that he was headed into Burma today (Sunday) to try some direct intervention with the junta, in an attempt to persuade them to allow the still-waiting rapid response teams entry into their country. Almost immediately, he re-announced he would not be going. Why? The generals would be too busy to see him.
But the Burmese government informed the Thai prime minister that it would be preoccupied with visiting victims of Cyclone Nargis and would not be available to talk to Samak, the aide of the Thai prime minister said.
That's the junta way of doing things -- visit the victims for the sake of their own image, rather than getting something actually done (or in this case, allowing some serious relief work to get done).

The disaster relief which has made it into the country is at risk of becoming propaganda material. The mainstream media have now caught up with the rebranding exercise already described by the exile media (and here).
"We have already seen regional commanders putting their names on the side of aid shipments from Asia, saying this was a gift from them and then distributing it in their region," said Mark Farmaner, director of Burma Campaign UK, which campaigns for human rights and democracy in the country.

"It is not going to areas where it is most in need," he said in London.
How much of the aid is ending up being sold at high prices, should be the next question.

Few Burmese are brave enough to complain about all this. At hard-hit Labutta, '[f]ew survivors wanted to speak to an outsider, as military trucks drove constantly through the town. Most cowered in corners.'
"The government wants total control of the situation although they can't provide much and they have no experience in relief efforts," said a leading aid worker for an international aid organization. "We have to report to them every step of the way, every decision we make.

"Their eyes are everywhere, monitoring what we do, who we talk to, what we bring in and how much," the aid worker said in a soft voice, constantly looking around nervously as his assistant turned off all the lights except one dim lamp.

He agreed to the interview at night after being assured he wouldn't be named or identified in any way.

"We don't want them to see you here. They don't trust us, as it is," he told a foreign reporter in Labutta.
Some Burmese may be hoping that a disaster of such epic scale may be enough to shake the junta from its entrenched rule. The solidity, or the lack of it in the military is little known by those outside the opaque institution.
"If a split in the Burmese military between reformist and hard-line elements doesn't occur now, it will never occur," said Donald M. Seekins, a Myanmar expert at Okinawa's Meio University.
With each day of dithering, the junta may be bringing on a second disaster of even larger proportions. An outbreak of cholera could probably be fended off with massive distribution of those very cool, huge water-bladders the Americans used in Aceh. Bring in a couple of those for a village, set them up, fill them with clean drinking water, the town's risk just dropped exponentially. On to the next town, repeat. If cholera takes hold, it can mean hundreds of thousands more deaths. The US and others are ready and willing to deploy this type of help. If they can't, the fault will be no mystery.
"From this week on, the military better watch their backs," said Josef Silverstein, a retired Rutgers University professor who studied Myanmar for more than a half century. "It's a mark upon the military that never will be erased."
I had hoped that the blunt statement by French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner a few days ago might throw a scare into the junta, and open the doors. He raised the issue I discussed here yesterday, the new international legal doctrine known as Responsibility to Protect. State sovereignty may be limited in circumstances like the current one in Burma. But they haven't budged. Now France has decided to take aid to the needy, with or without permission.
France is to make its own aid action for the victims of cyclone Nargis, sending the warship Mistral loading with 1,500 tonnes of goods, it was reported Saturday. "We have decided to act without waiting any further," French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner was quoted by the French daily Le Figaro.

The aid is to be directly distributed to the effected. .., either by the ship's crew or by French aid organizations," Kouchner said, adding that "delivering aid directly to (Myanmar's military) junta doesn't come into the question."
Maybe that's the answer, just go in by sea. American ships are steaming to the area at the moment. Just get in there and start doing the work, save some lives. Those people in the Irrawaddy Delta haven't seen hide nor hair of a Tatmadaw soldier. If necessary, enforce a no-fly zone -- it'll probably require two F-14's, tops.

I don't see any other way if we aren't to be complicit in a genocide.

Longtime Asia hand Shawn Crispin makes the case for humanitarian invasion. I would quote, but this post is long enough. Read it all, and think about it (if any policy makers are out there...). The Burmese people have been dreaming of such an eventuality for so long, it hurts. They want to be part of the civilised world, even if their rulers don't.

Romesh Ratnesar makes a similar case in the current Time Magazine. Delivering aid without the host government's consent has been done before (in Bosnia and in Sudan). But by the time a line has been crossed, it will be too late. Drastic action would need to be pre-emptive -- in this case, pre-empting a massive deadly epidemic that could kill more than have already been killed. One could also consider it a pre-emption of mass murder.

And if the junta should fall in the process, so much the better. It will happen without Than Shwe; most conscripts would defect immediately, in my opinion. An elected parliament is already there, waiting for 18 years for its first session. The people elected this parliament in an overwhelming voter turnout, choosing the National League for Democracy by around 85%.

The only real split in Burmese society is the one between the junta, and everyone else. Regime change is the only cure; if it happens we'll see that country turn around and start climbing right back up again. Masses will be saved, recovery with the help of all the world will proceed, and Burma will eventually prosper. Military rule only postpones this. The generals don't know how to do it. They couldn't even take a simple message for their people (a seven day advance cyclone warning, with its accurate course, from Thailand).

Let not their deaths be in vain.


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