Elections ‘may hinder’ aid to Burma

Concerns have arisen over the possibility that overseas aid flows into Burma may be increasingly restricted this year as the junta looks to limit the number of foreigners in the country in the run-up to elections.

Although much of the international community has quietly voiced a desire to increase aid to Burma, currently one of the lowest recipients of aid in Southeast Asia as a result of sanctions, this may not be altogether welcomed by the junta.

“We know that visas in the past couple of months have been difficult to obtain for aid workers and we expect more of this in the next couple of months,” Benjamin Zawacki, Burma researcher at Amnesty International, told DVB.

He added that it may not be a “sinister” politicisation of aid by the junta but rather an unwillingness “to have foreigners in the country at the time of the elections”.

If the fears become reality, it would mirror the aftermath of cyclone Nargis in May 2008 when the government, afraid of the scale of the disaster reaching an international audience, initially barred the majority of journalists and aid workers from entering the stricken Irrawaddy delta, likely contributing to the eventual 140,000 death toll.

And despite the country still reeling from its worst natural disaster in recorded history, the government in the weeks following Nargis rushed through a constitutional referendum which set the ball rolling for the elections this year.

“That was a very stark example of what the government is capable of in terms of prioritising its own interests over the interests of the people,” said Zawacki.

But, according to James East, regional communications advisor at World Vision aid group, which has some 700 staff working inside Burma, the elections could in fact open the country’s humanitarian corridor.

“I think the international community is seeking for ways to engage, and yes there may be issues along the way, but the sense from the diplomatic community is that the electoral process may lead to an opportunity for increased engagement,” he said.

Analysts have said that, despite the results of the elections likely being a foregone conclusion, they should be seen as an acknowledgement by government that it needs a semblance of legitimacy on the international stage, something it has previously disregarded.

Moreover, the junta has already made tentative steps towards opening up to the international community, whether purely cosmetic or not, with several high-profile visits by US politicians in the past six months.

But, according to East, there is an issue among Western governments of balancing the desire to get aid into the country and maintaining tight sanctions on the military rulers.

“The sanctions movement has been very strong, and governments are worried about upsetting the pro-sanctions group,” he said, adding however that there has been an opinion shift regarding sanctions, largely due to a new understanding of the realities in Asia where “public confrontation is not as effective as relationship building”.

Zawacki said however that Burma’s political crisis should have no bearing on the amount of aid given to the country.

“These two issues should not be mixed; they have been mixed by the [Burmese] government itself but that’s not an issue that the international community should respond to in a tit-for-tat way.”

He added that there is “no justification for holding the majority of the population hostage to political concerns when humanitarian imperatives dictate that aid must get through”.

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