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Monday, May 19, 2008

Isolating Burma Won't Help


THE devastating natural disasters in Burma and China illustrate the difference between having a competent government and an incompetent one.

The Burmese military, unlike the Chinese, has done little to help its people, of whom more than 100,000 are already dead. The Burmese Government's reluctance to allow foreign aid in will condemn many more tens of thousands to unnecessary deaths.

Optimistic analysts in Southeast Asia and in the West hope the appalling suffering in Burma may lead to the collapse of the military junta and its replacement by a government led by Aung San Suu Kyi.

Sadly, this is pretty unlikely. The Burmese junta, led by Than Shwe, still controls the army and the army is willing to kill civilians in large numbers. That means the junta stays in power until there is a split within the army and one part allies itself with broader forces in civil society, in this case Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy or perhaps Burma's Buddhist monks.

I believe the West, specifically the US and Europe, bear a share of moral responsibility for the calamity that has just consumed Burma.

This is not to sink into a swamp of moral relativism. The Burmese Government is wholly morally responsible for its own actions, which have reduced its people to being among the poorest and the least free in the world. I agree with every nasty thing that has been written about the Burmese Government.

But two stark realities ought to be faced. The first is that the right of humanitarian intervention, the duty to protect and any other international law cliche you care to cite adds up to precisely nothing. There is not the slightest chance of anybody intervening militarily in Burma, or indeed intervening in any other way in opposition to the Burmese Government. Even to talk of it is to partake in self-indulgent prattle, which is an alternative to action.

Second, the policy of sanctions and isolation that has been applied by the US and Europe during the past decade and more has been a disastrous failure. Yes, the primary responsibility for Burma's plight lies with the Burmese Government. This is no nonsensical Edward Said-style argument about everything being the fault of imperialism or Western hegemony.

But the West pursues policies to have an effect. When those policies have the opposite effect to their intentions they should be discarded. Moreover, these policies, so morally high-blown in intent, must be judged, morally, on their consequences.

The Burmese generals pursue a policy of isolation, for themselves and for their society. The Burmese generals have had no better friends, no more effective allies, in effect if not in intent, in achieving this isolation than the governments of the US and Europe and their human rights lobbies.

Australia occupies an uneasy middle ground. We do not apply trade sanctions to Burma but place some restrictions on the movements of its leaders should they wish to come to Australia. We have an embassy in Burma but neither encourage nor discourage trade.

China and India fully engage Burma, as do most of its Southeast Asian neighbours. That means there is no chance of Western sanctions producing regime change. However, even without the support of its Asian neighbours, there is little chance of sanctions producing regime change.

What Western sanctions ensure is that Burma is cut off from the most liberalising of all Western forces, Western commerce.

Periodically, Burma has flirted with economic liberalisation. US and European sanctions ban investment in Burma and imports from Burma. This truly is moral vanity and the only people who suffer for it are the Burmese people. Suu Kyi supports the sanctions, but they are the wrong policy nonetheless. Merely reciting Suu Kyi's name, utterly admirable woman that she is, does not constitute a sensible Burma policy.

Trade and development for Burma would not mean democracy, but they would mean a vast improvement on the situation today. The Burmese generals rightly fear trade and development because they believe the importing of Western companies into Burma would involve the importing of Western values.

The situation in Vietnam in the late 1980s and early '90s is an instructive comparison. The Vietnamese Government several times aborted its early moves to economic liberalisation because it feared the West had a secret policy of "peaceful evolution", under which economic liberalisation would ultimately lead to political liberalisation and the death of the Vietnamese Communist Party.

The Vietnamese were right, in the sense that every Western liberal concerned with Vietnam does hope its economic liberalisation will, through peaceful evolution, ultimately result in political liberalisation. The Chinese example helped convince the Vietnamese that they could remain Stalinist politically but open up economically.

And eventually that economic opening does lead to an expansion of political space, of human freedom, even without democracy.

Say there were five Western factories opening in Burma each year. And each factory employed 2000 people. Each of these people would support, say, four other family members and have as well a multiplier effect through the economy, in terms of small industries servicing the factories, of another five.

That would mean commerce would create 100,000 modestly middle-class people in a year. In 10 years this would be a million, with enough money to spend a little extra on education or health care.

The children of the ruling elites would start to go to the US or Europe or Australia for education and on their return would want their society to modernise and would have the technical skill to achieve this. That is a way that we might improve Burmese society over time.

There are no guarantees it would work. While maintaining our criticism of Burma on human rights, we would need to convince the generals we didn't want them dead. We would have to be able to hold two contrasting thoughts in our head at the one time, often a very difficult feat in democratic debate of the dumbest common denominator.

Drawing the Burmese ruling class into the wider international environment ought to be one big object of our policy towards Burma. Cyclones, HIV-AIDS, illegal drug industries: the Burmese Government neither can, nor wants to, ameliorate these disasters for the Burmese people.

As things stand, the West can feel complacent in its condemnation of the Burmese Government.

We should remember, though, that we pay no price for these condemnations and many people die whom we otherwise might help.

Burma Today May 2008

ASEAN to Handle Foreign Aid


SINGAPORE (AP) — Myanmar agreed to open its doors to medical teams from members of Southeast Asia's regional bloc as the country estimated losses from Cyclone Nargis will exceed $10 billion, Singapore's foreign minister said Monday.

An emergency meeting of foreign ministers from the 10 countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations decided that the bloc will work with the U.N. to hold a donor conference in Yangon on May 25, the foreign minister, George Yeo, told reporters.

In a major concession after being slammed for blocking foreign aid, Myanmar also agreed to open its doors to medical teams from all ASEAN countries, Yeo said.

At least 134,000 people were killed or left missing in the May 2-3 cyclone, and another 2.5 million people are living in poor conditions, most of them without shelter, enough food, drinking water or medical care.

Yeo said the meeting, which included Myanmar Foreign Minister Nyan Win, agreed to set up an ASEAN-led task force for redistributing foreign aid. ASEAN Secretary-General Surin Pitsuan will go to Myanmar soon for planning.

The effort, Yeo said, will "facilitate" the distribution of international aid, including the deployment of medical and other relief workers.

But this does not mean the junta will open its doors to foreign experts immediately, which aid agencies and the United Nations say is required immediately.

"There will not be an uncontrolled entry of foreign personnel into Myanmar," he said

European Union nations have warned that the junta could be committing a crime against humanity by blocking aid intended for the survivors faced with hunger, loss of their homes and potential outbreaks of deadly diseases.

Yeo said Myanmar Foreign Minister Nyan Win told the meeting that losses are expected to be well over $10 billion.

The bloc hopes to raise funds for Myanmar at the May 25 meeting and will also work closely with the World Bank and Asian Development Bank on aid packages, he said.

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said in an editorial in the daily Le Monde on Monday that the U.N. Security Council would be guilty of "cowardice" if it does not force Myanmar to accept international aid.

But the ASEAN meeting rejected suggestions foreign ships carrying aid make a forced entry into Myanmar

"That will create unnecessary complication. It will only lead to more suffering for Myanmar people," Yeo said.

Burma Today may 2008

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Children Might Starve to Death in Myanmar


YANGON, Myanmar (AP) — Thousands of children who survived Myanmar's cyclone will starve to death in two to three weeks unless food is rushed to them, an aid agency warned Sunday.

The warning case as an increasingly angry international community pleaded for approval to mount an all-out relief effort.

The United Nations said Myanmar's isolationist ruling generals were even forbidding the import of communications equipment, hampering already difficult contact among relief agencies.

A U.N. report said Saturday that emergency relief from the international community had reached an estimated 500,000 people. But the junta insists it will handle distribution to victims of Cyclone Nargis.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he was sending U.N. humanitarian chief John Holmes to Myanmar this weekend. Myanmar's leader, Senior Gen. Than Shwe, has refused to take Ban's telephone calls and has not answered two letters. Holmes will be carrying a third, U.N. spokesman Michele Montas said in New York.

Holmes was expected to arrive Sunday evening in Myanmar's largest city, Yangon, said Amanda Pitt, a U.N. spokeswoman in Bangkok, the capital of neighboring Thailand.

"He's going at the request of the secretary-general to find out what's really going on the ground, to get a much better picture of how the response is going and ... to see how much we can help them scale up this response," Pitt said. Details of the visit, she said, were still being worked out.

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.

State-run radio said the government has so far spent about $2 million for relief work and has received millions of dollars worth of relief supplies from local and international donors. It said the government was distributing assistance promptly and efficiently to the affected areas.

State radio on Sunday also said the government was providing "full health services" to the victims, saying that except for the "usual diseases" there were no epidemic outbreaks.

Aid agencies were not convinced, and international outrage mounted over Myanmar's handling of the crisis. Save the Children, a global aid agency, said Sunday that thousands of young children face starvation without quick food aid.

"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."

Britain's prime minister accused authorities in the country, also known as Burma, of preventing foreign aid from reaching victims and said the military regime cares more about its own survival than its people's welfare.

"This is inhuman," Gordon Brown told the British Broadcasting Corp.

In one town near Yangon, tired and hungry refugees stood in the baking sun beside flooded rice paddies, demolished monasteries and thatched huts. With the arrival of each vehicle carrying precious food and water, they jumped with excitement and surged ahead to get a share.

At least they were getting something.

"The farther you go, the worse the situation," said an overwhelmed doctor in the town of Twante, just southwest of Yangon, Myanmar's main city.

"Near Yangon, people are getting a lot of help and it's still bad. In the remote delta villages, we don't even want to imagine." The doctor declined to give her name, fearing government reprisal.

The government flew 60 diplomats and U.S. officials in helicopters to three places in the Irrawaddy delta, the hardest-hit area, on Saturday to show them progress in the relief effort.

"It was a show," Shari Villarosa, the top U.S. diplomat in Myanmar, told The Associated Press by telephone after returning to Yangon. "That's what they wanted us to see."

A French navy ship that arrived Saturday off Myanmar's shores loaded with food, medicines and fresh water — a potentially lifesaving cargo — was given the now-familiar red light. France's U.N. ambassador, Jean-Maurice Ripert, called it "nonsense."

"We have small boats, which could allow us to go through the delta to most of the regions where no one has accessed yet," he said. "We have small helicopters to drop food, and we have doctors."

The USS Essex, an amphibious assault ship, and its battle group also have been waiting to join the relief effort. U.S. Marine flights to Yangon from their makeshift headquarters in Utapao, Thailand, continued Saturday — bringing the total to 500,000 pounds (227,000 kilograms) of aid delivered — but negotiations to allow helicopters to fly directly to the disaster zone were stalled.

Myanmar's state-run television, which has repeatedly broadcast footage of generals reassuring refugees calmly sitting in clean tents, announced Friday that the cyclone death toll had nearly doubled to 78,000 with about 56,000 still missing.

Aid groups say even those estimates are low.

The International Red Cross says the death toll alone is probably about 128,000, with many more deaths possible from disease and starvation unless help gets quickly to some 2.5 million survivors.

But seeing that the help gets to the victims does not appear to be a top priority for Myanmar's rulers. The military, which took power in a 1962 coup, has even barred foreigners from traveling outside of Yangon, putting up a security cordon around the city.

Myanmar has been slightly more open to aid from its neighbors, accepting Thai and Indian medical teams, which arrived Saturday. The 32-member Thai team was expected to travel to the delta in the coming days, said Dr. Surachet Satitniramai, director of Thailand's National Medical Emergency Services Institute.

The Indian team consists of 50 doctors and paramedics from the Army Medical Corp., said Indian Air Force spokesman Wing Cmdr. Manish Gandhi. He could not immediately say if they would be allowed to go to the delta.

May 18, 2007 Burma Today

Military Leader Visits Refugees


YANGON, Myanmar (CNN) -- Two weeks after Cyclone Nargis devastated Myanmar, the country's reclusive junta leader Than Shwe visited a refugee camp outside Yangon, according to video broadcast on state television.
Surrounded by fellow junta members all dressed in olive-green military suits, Shwe walked through streets talking with the people who lined up outside their neatly constructed tents.

The 75-year-old military ruler touched the cheeks of young survivors held by their mothers.

The junta leaders -- who traveled about 320 km (200 miles) south to Yangon from the new capital Naypyidaw -- looked on as aid workers at the camp opened plastic cases filled with relief supplies.

The visit comes on the day that United Nations humanitarian chief John Holmes is expected to arrive in Myanmar, which is also known as Burma, to assess the scope of the disaster.

Last week, Holmes said the death toll from the cyclone which struck the country on May 2-3 could be "in the region of 100,000 or even more." Millions more are homeless.

The official death toll provided by Myanmar's government is much lower.

Aid agencies have struggled to gain access to the country from the secretive military junta that rules Myanmar, though some relief flights landed. The regime has indicated that it would like supplies but not international aid workers.

Forecasts show that in the coming days, the Irrawaddy Delta -- the part of the country hardest-hit by the cyclone -- could receive another 12 cm (4.7 inches) of rain, adding to the woes of the cyclone-affected masses.

The lack of access makes it hard to bring the scale of destruction into sharp focus.

Citing figures from 22 organizations in 58 townships, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies said estimates of the death toll in Myanmar range from 68,833 and 127,990.
"They are all estimates, which may or may not be right," said spokesman John Sparrow. "There is no way to verify the figures, no way any organization could substantiate them."

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies does not formally estimate death tolls, he said. It compiled figures through an informal survey of numbers cited by other organizations. Those groups say the cyclone affected from 1.6 million and 2.5 million people.

"Clearly there's a huge frustration that while (aid workers) may be able to get into the country and into Yangon, they're not at the moment able to move into the affected areas and carry out the tasks they normally carry out," Holmes said.

In recent days, Myanmar has agreed to let in some foreign aid.

A U.S. Marine spokesman told CNN that the government had authorized five more U.S. flights to land in Myanmar with supplies. The flights will deliver 46 pallets loaded with bottled water, plastic sheeting and hygiene kits as well as crackers and powdered milk.

Three additional U.S. flights have already gone to Myanmar -- one on Monday and two on Tuesday. They carried food, mosquito netting and tarpaulins.
Meanwhile, Pentagon officials said the USS Essex, USS Juneau and USS Harpers Ferry are in international waters off the coast of the country, laden with more than 14,000 containers of fresh water and other aid and awaiting orders to deliver by air or landing craft.

On Wednesday, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown asked U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to convene an emergency summit on Myanmar aid. Ban has blasted the reclusive regime for what he called an "unacceptably slow response" to the disaster, and called, "in the most strenuous terms, on the government of Myanmar to put its people's lives first."
May 18, 2007 Burma Today

Pressure on Myanmar Junta Is Building


YANGON, Burma Today — International pressure on the ruling military junta in Myanmar continued to grow over the weekend as a senior United Nations envoy was due to arrive in Yangon on Sunday to talk with government officials about what the United Nations has called a slow response to international aid offers after Cyclone Nargis.

John Holmes, under secretary general for humanitarian affairs, has talks scheduled with top members of the government, although diplomats in Yangon said it was unlikely that Mr. Holmes would be allowed to meet with the junta’s leader, Senior Gen. Than Shwe. The general has remained in the remote capital of Naypyidaw, far from the storm-damaged delta in the south.

In the two weeks since the cyclone hit, the junta has allowed in a modest amount of supplies from a number of nations, but relief workers say it is far short of what they need to fend off starvation and disease. The United Nations says only 20 percent of the survivors have received even “rudimentary aid.”

In some of the harshest comments, Prime Minister Gordon Brown of Britain told the BBC on Saturday that a natural disaster “is being made into a man-made catastrophe by the negligence, the neglect and the inhuman treatment of the Burmese people by a regime that is failing to act and to allow the international community to do what it wants to do.”

The French ambassador, Jean-Maurice Ripert, warned on Friday that the government’s refusal to allow aid to be delivered to people “could lead to a true crime against humanity,” according to The Associated Press.

The 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations also called an emergency meeting of its foreign ministers for Monday in Singapore.

The association has asked to see a disaster report from the junta and wants to discuss the regime’s refusal to accept more aid and its refusal to allow foreign relief experts into the country. Traditionally, however, the bloc’s political clout with individual members has been weak; one of its founding principles is “non-interference in the internal affairs of one another.”

A French government statement said a navy ship was waiting about 15 miles outside Myanmar’s territorial waters on Saturday, hoping to go in and unload its cargo of 1,000 tons of food — enough to feed 100,000 people for 15 days. The aid also includes shelters for 15,000 people, according to the statement.

France is negotiating with Myanmar on delivering the aid, Rear Adm. Alain Hinden, the ship’s commander said, The A.P. reported.

India also sent 50 Army doctors and paramedics, along with medical supplies to set up emergency medical clinics, to Yangon on Saturday, although it is unclear if they had government approval to travel to affected areas.

All foreigners have been expelled and banned from the hard-hit Irrawaddy Delta, even humanitarian aid workers with long experience in Myanmar. Impromptu aid convoys by local groups and private citizens — often with supplies donated by Burmese companies — have been turned back at military checkpoints.

“These guys are xenophobic,” Shari Villarosa, the senior diplomat at the United States Embassy in Yangon, said in a recent interview, referring to the military leadership.

The government said that almost 78,000 people have died and nearly 56,000 more are missing. The Red Cross put the possible death toll at 128,000.

Ms. Villarosa was able to tour parts of the delta on Saturday with Myanmar’s foreign minister, Nyan Win, riding in one of the government’s few working helicopters. They left Yangon at 7 a.m. and returned early in the afternoon; it was the first chance for an American diplomat to see the area since the storm.

“It was a show. That’s what they wanted us to see,” Ms. Villarosa told The A.P. in a telephone interview.

In addition to roadblocks and checkpoints, the junta’s shutdown of the country has included an Internet firewall that blocks most e-mail access. It also has disabled access to a number of computer programs that can evade firewalls, as well as access to dissident Web sites run by exiled Burmese.

Many residents of Myanmar get their daily news from the Burmese-language radio services run by broadcasters like the BBC and Voice of America. They listen to shortwave radios at home, away from neighborhood snitches. If they are discovered listening to the foreign stations, several Yangon residents said, they could be detained or beaten, or they could lose their jobs.

Parts of Yangon, Myanmar’s main city, were still without power Saturday night, two weeks after the storm, and water supplies were sporadic. Gasoline was still being rationed and prices in the market continued to rise — along with civic anger and frustration.

A large banner was hung on the outside of a seven-story apartment building in Yangon that read: “We don’t want gold, we just need water.” In the Burmese language, the written words for gold and water are nearly identical. The banner also took a swipe at General Shwe. In Burmese, shwe means gold.

When a soldier passing through the neighborhood saw the sign, a local resident quickly tore it down.

Somini Sengupta contributed reporting from New Delhi.

Posted: Burma Today 2008

Myanmar's Junta Rulers Oblivious to Sanctions


With US President George W. Bush slapping fresh sanctions on Thursday against state-run Myanmar firms, offer little help to the Myanmar people. More pressure needs to be applied by the civilized world to help the poor people of Myanmar. Imposing sanctions against Myanmar’s Junta Rulers is just another wasted attempt by the Bush Administration.
In October of 2007 Myanmar Monks peacefully protested against the Junta Rulers with regards to soaring food and fuel costs only to be crushed by the Military Rulers. Many Monks were beaten and Killed for standing up for the people of Myanmar.
The News of this rocked the world and reports were telecasted world wide of the events unfolding in Myanmar (Burma). As time passed after the Military Regime suppressed the uprising Myanmar was again forgotten.
Now a cyclone has left two million survivors short of food, clean water, shelter and aid groups are being refused entry into Myanmar buy the Military Rulers. When will World leaders say “Enough is enough” and force Myanmar strategically for change?
Now more than ever is the time for World leaders to take a stance against Myanmar’s Rulers and come to the aid of the Myanmar people.
More Problems to Come:
One of the darkest problems on the horizons in Myanmar is the next rice harvest, which will be essential to keep a massive food shortage at bay. The Irrawaddy Delta hit hardest by the storm is the impoverished country's rice bowl.
"Extensive damage to agriculture production risks the loss of the November harvest," the United Nations said in a new internal report on the situation Sunday, warning that planting had to be carried out within seven weeks.
"If this planting season is lost, then assistance will be required for some months to come."
The UN's food agency has already warned that more than 20 percent of rice paddies in the cyclone-hit area were destroyed, including in districts outside Yangon and the delta region.
An intricate system of embankments and irrigation systems critical to the success of the crop will require an enormous amount of work to restore -- work by people who are grieving, homeless and weak from hunger.
How is this to happen if the Ruling Junta won’t allow foreign aid into the country?
Sanctions will do nothing to help the people of Myanmar let alone stop the ruling Junta from continuing their disregard for the welfare of the poor and suffering.
May 18, 2007 Burma Today
Oblivious

John Holmes arrived in Myanmar


YANGON (AFP) — The UN's top disaster official John Holmes arrived in Myanmar on Sunday on a three-day visit to convince the reluctant regime to open the doors to a massive relief effort after Cyclone Nargis.

He arrived just hours after the latest UN emergency report on the country -- where around two million survivors are lacking food and water more than two weeks after the storm hit -- said needs were still critical.

The international community has been turning up the pressure on the regime over its handling of the tragedy, which has left nearly 134,000 people dead or missing since tearing into the southern Irrawaddy Delta on May 2.

Holmes was carrying a letter from UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to the head of the junta, Than Shwe. The UN chief has made repeated calls to the military leader but failed to reach him since the tragedy.

The secretive military rulers have been letting more foreign experts into the country in recent days, but aid groups say it is not enough to ensure that victims get the food, water, shelter and medical care they need.

British aid group Save the Children said Sunday that thousands of children could starve to death within weeks, and the latest UN internal report said it was still awaiting government approval to import rice, pulses and oil.

It also warned that time was running out to start planting for the coming rice harvest.

"If this planting season is lost, then assistance will be required for some months to come," the report said.

Holmes was to visit the delta on Monday and hold talks with regime officials, local UN representative Dan Baker told reporters.

The international community has been toughening the rhetoric on the regime, which has limited the access of foreigners with expertise in managing disaster zones, despite warnings they are essential to the relief effort.

South Africa's Archbishop Desmond Tutu and French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner have both raised the spectre of crimes against humanity by the junta over its handling of the catastrophe.

Tutu said the regime had "effectively declared war on its own population."

Despite the government's insistence that the relief effort is going well, witnesses who managed to sneak through the security cordon around the hard-hit Irrawaddy Delta said the situation remained dire.

"It was horrible beyond description," said a foreign businessman, one of a bout a dozen eyewitnesses interviewed by AFP.

"Most of the devastated huts looked like they were empty at first glance. But there were actually survivors inside," he said.

"One hut with no roof was full of about 100 people, crouching in the rain. There was no food and no water. Each person had nothing more than the clothes on their bodies, shivering in the cold."

The junta has continued to insist it can handle most of the operation by itself, and state media are full of photos of smiling citizens receiving handouts from generals.

The junta's English-language mouthpiece, the New Light of Myanmar newspaper, on Sunday carried more than two dozen stories praising its own relief efforts.

"Rescue and relief works can be expedited effectively thanks to the measures the government has taken to materialise the relief undertakings as scheduled," it said.

Aid agencies are hoping that Holmes will have some sway on the regime, which keeps an iron grip on one of the poorest and most isolated nations on the planet.

Aid groups say the government cannot possibly handle the tragedy alone, with hundreds of tonnes of supplies and high-tech equipment piling up in warehouses, bottle-necked by logistics and other problems.