Saturday, May 10, 2008
A DEVASTATED COUNTRY IS TOLD TO 'VOTE YES'; RELIEF CONVOYS ATTACKED
he relief fiasco taking place in Burma is, as far as my memory goes, without precedent. The world is mobilized, and yet remains paralyzed by one man -- Burma's pig-headed ruler, Than Shwe.
"Voting" in his "constitutional referendum" is under way now. Turnout is reported to be light. Widespread rumours in Burma say the result will be fixed at 84.6% for "Yes."
An aircraft arrived on Thursday from Qatar, loaded with relief supplies, medicine, and 62 people comprising search and rescue teams along with doctors and nurses from Indonesia. Because the junta had not expected the relief workers, the entire shipment was expelled back to Qatar. The junta openly asked for international help, and then reject most of it. "We'll take some of these, we don't want this, take this back, oh these will look good in my pantry. And you willing hands are certainly not welcome." It's disgusting.
The disaster's homeless are being turned away from emergency shelters, with authorities telling them to go back and stay in their destroyed homes as they don't have enough food for the survivors.
For the deeply xenophobic ruling generals, everyone is a potential enemy, including those who approach such humanitarian catastrophes with nothing more than their compassion and their earned expertise.
When the 2004 tsunami devastated Aceh, a responsible government immediately opened the door to everyone who could help. An elected government's main concern was for the welfare of its people. The immediate response was swift and massive, undoubtedly saving thousands more lives. Military ships were converted to offshore hospitals, helicopters ferried the injured and sick in one direction, and food, medicine, shelter and mobile clinics in the other. Aid agencies take some time to get their networks established, but these military efforts were crucial life-savers until that could happen.
Yet here is a catastrophe quickly approaching a similar scale to that in Aceh, and we see the actions of an irresponsible government. The junta is least concerned with their people's welfare. Its only concern is for its continuing ability to control them. Foreigners delivering medical aid or using their expertise in emergency recovery are seen as a threat by the junta -- they might lose face. Even more so if those foreigners happen to be wearing the military uniforms of developed countries. Who knows what might be inside those boxes instead of ready-to-eat biscuits?
"They're afraid that if foreign soldiers come in they are the spearhead to overthrow the government," said Josef Silverstein, a retired Rutgers University professor who studied Myanmar for more than a half century.The paranoia of these people might seem unbelievable, but it really is this extreme. If they don't start giving more access PDQ, they will really need to start worrying about their position. The Responsibility To Protect doctrine of international law isn't just three words. This may present just the right occasion for laying down a precedent; the regime's willingness to sacrifice thousands of the lives of its own people simply for its own comfort and security, is unprecedented.
From the junta's perspective: "Aid workers could be carrying weapons to give to the people, they could give them ideas of how to overthrow the government."
The RTP doctrine has been established, and it's the rapidly approaching time to put it into practice. State sovereignty doesn't trump all else, and for this doctrine to be taken seriously it's time to lay down the law (and I don't care what China has to say about it, in trying to protect their junta friends with their veto). Sovereignty does not include making thousands more die of disease, exposure or starvation when they could be saved by help that is ready and waiting, but refused.
Failure to act will result in the entire "international system" being discredited even more than the brainless junta already is.
An editorial in The Irrawaddy puts it very well:
By his actions, Than Shwe has shown the world what kind of man he is—a mentally deranged dictator, holding his people hostage at the end of a gun barrel, utterly unfit to rule a country.The junta is presently more concerned with "winning" its sham "referendum" than it is with the survival of Burmese people. Opposing them in this referendum is illegal; opposition has been and will be punished.
The cyclone has again unmasked the true colors of Than Shwe’s regime, which claims to have built a modern, developed nation. It now bears the responsibility for the catastrophe wrought upon the country by the cyclone, and it must be held accountable.
The military seized all food and equipment which had arrived via the World Food Program, and WFP officials said they had "no choice" but to suspend their efforts. Aid supplies which have made it in, on a few permitted flights, have been taken by the military and slapped with labels proclaiming the goods to be donated by high-ranking officers.
They care only about building their own faces. Uniformed officers are shown on state television, condescending to hand over a package to wretched-looking survivors. This is not mass distribution, this is propaganda and nothing more. While each day the assistance is kept away means how many thousands more deaths? For the ruler, priority number one is promoting his "Yes" to the "referendum" in happy, singing video spots. A survivor in devastated Bogalay township said they have seen no relief or aid workers at all.
"People are waiting to die," he said. "We need aid such as food, water, medicines and shelter, not just video clips for show."The National League for Democracy has formed its own emergency relief committee. These people are certainly ready to govern (as they should be doing now, by rights, having won the last democratic election by an 85% landslide). Nyan Win, party spokesman:
"The current situation is a real concern to all Burmese and all humankind," he said. "This is a national tragedy and humanitarian crisis. People are dying."Former student leader Mo Thee Zun says if the junta continues refusing international help, it amounts to a kind of genocide. I find it difficult to disagree.
The news that US navy ships were approaching Burmese waters is spreading among the people. The comments by a US official a few days ago, that the US might be forced into dropping emergency supplies with or without approval (later denied by the SecDef), also seem to have been carried on Burma's grapevines.
"There are a lot of rumors that US is coming to deliver aid," said a Rangoon journalist. "Some people even went and waited at the (Rangoon) port."
"And people in the delta area keep looking at the sky," he said.
While the junta's own massive military forces are doing little of anything to rescue citizens or help picking up bodies, their other forces in the pro-junta civilian militias have been doing something -- attacking relief convoys.
Club-wielding members of a pro-regime citizens’ group attempted to hijack relief supplies in Rangoon, according to local charity groups and non-government organizations in the former Burmese capital.The USDA has also been busy (this group also participated in the violent suppression of democracy demonstrations last August and September). They're busy re-labelling the aid supplies to indicate their own generosity. When people who are getting no attention erected banners simply asking, "Please Help Us," the USDA shows up to rip down the banners and punish the people who raised them.
A convoy of vehicles carrying rice to cyclone victims in Rangoon’s Thanlyin Township was attacked on Thursday by armed members of Swan-Ar-Shin, a government-supported organization that helped suppress last September’s demonstrations, one Rangoon source reported. The attackers were armed with clubs and knives, the source said.
One NGO worker said permission had to be obtained from another pro-government organization, the Union Solidarity and Development Association, before relief supplies could be delivered.
Is it time to force humanitarian intervention? I say yes, it is.