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Commentary: Goodbye cruel 2008 and hello to reality

Pascal Khoo Thwe

Jan 8, 2009 (DVB), For the majority of people in Burma, 2008 will be remembered as the year an apocalypse by the name of Cyclone Nargis visited their country, and the year the international community headed by the United Nations thoroughly failed them.

But people who are in the position to help, both the ruling generals and powerful nations who could push the generals to help their own people, still pretend that it was only a passing phenomenon that can be ignored. Or is it? You may say I am a cynic but I’m not the only one, though I sincerely wish I were the only one.

When the evil wind struck the Irrawaddy delta in early May, the world was waiting for the arrival of the biggest Olympic Games ever to be held by the biggest nation on earth. The ‘great and the good’, who always regard Burma as merely a footnote in world history, regarded the disaster there as an inconvenient and uninvited blip from Mother Nature and thought it wise not to do anything which could upset the striding dragon that is China, situated next door.

It wasn’t so much the destruction caused by the storm that was most painful for the people affected as the lack of collective political will by the people who were in a position to help which caused the indelible scars on their hearts.

When an Indian meteorological station warned in advance that the storm was heading towards Burma, the state media reacted as if it was merely a seasonal storm that would just skim over the country like a breeze over a lake, and the junta made no serious effort to forewarn or make systematic preparations to protect the people.

As soon as the cyclone struck, Burmese soldiers were ordered to stay in their bases until the worst was over. Not a single general was to be seen on the television or anywhere near the disaster zones for many days.

It makes sense for the generals not to help the people in need because the junta has never been interested in improving the lives of the people in the slightest, but only in holding on to power whatever happens. The more people the storm killed, the better for the generals as no one could blame them for it and they could seize the prime lands of the people who perished. Among those who perished were many Karen people whom successive military regimes had been trying to wipe out , in various ways and many times , from the region. When Indian, French and US warships rushed towards Burmese waters to help the survivors, the junta refused them permission to come ashore to help those stranded in remote regions.

Foreign governments, ‘urged’, ‘denounced’, ‘condemned’ and ‘demanded’ that the generals take action but no concerted efforts were made to push the junta where it matters, and the blame was thrown back on people who pointed out that effective help could be given, leaving potential donors and helpers confused at best. Politicians have many ‘critical’ words to say when they are not keen to help , with an undertone of blame on the people of Burma for the existence of military regime to boot.

While it was estimated that around 80,000 people had died and 50,000 were still missing after more than a week, western governments and donors were still arguing as to how to help the victims without infringing the ‘national sovereignty’ of Burma, and the UN admitted it hadn’t a clue how bad things were. It was like watching a school bully taunt a slowly starving boy with food while another bully grabs the boy's throat. The mental cruelty inflicted on the surviving victims was so painfully comical that it was hard not to laugh.

The UN knew perfectly well that the junta would accept aid only on its own terms, refusing to allow foreign humanitarian workers into the country and insisting , despite having little experience in the area , on distributing aid itself. As usual, it opted to pursue a 'wait and see' policy and diplomatise while hundreds of people were dying day by day, instead of taking decisive action , either to negotiate with or to overrule the junta , to save lives.

While world leaders were arguing with aid organisations, a major-general Karel Vervoort, former head of Training and Support Command in the Belgian Air Force, revealed that life-saving parcels could bring instant relief if the will was there.

His ‘revelation’, published in a reputable British newspaper, the Independent, on 18 May, was particularly critical to the UN, to the say the least. He insisted that there was a way of distributing aid from the air in small packages containing food, water and medicines, which could be scattered widely, minimising the chances of them being monopolised and misused, similar to a system known as ‘Snowdrop’ conceived by a man named Geoff Woodford. After 10 years of tests and investment, it was declared 'operational' in the Belgian Air Force by the Minister of Defence. Vervoort argued that if the food arsenals had been in place, aid could have been dropped within 24 hours of the cyclone. He added that many actual 'experts' did not even know of its existence at the time.

He also pointed out that there had been a dispute over the ownership of the patent as the UN World Food Programme began implementing its own Snowdrop programme, stating that they had devised the system themselves, prompting Geoff Woodford to file a complaint insisting that the patent was his, and asserting ownership of the intellectual property.

After reading the article, I had no energy left to say anything about the suffering of the people to the media or anyone who cared to ask. I knew then that the people of Burma had no one to depend on. They are expected to die in their hundreds or thousands just to get the fleeting attention of the world to their plight without getting any solid action from those who can help them help themselves.

When individual Burmese people saw that neither their government nor the international community was going to help their distressed countrymen, they packed whatever supplies they could give or collect, and drove down to the affected areas to help. They were stopped, robbed, harassed and intimidated at every turn by agents of the junta, and some of them, including famous comedian Zarganar, were arrested later and imprisoned for their efforts.

A Burmese army officer later said that the international community should have entered Burma willy-nilly to help. "Speaking as an army officer, there would certainly have been an initial shoot-out if the planes came but we would have had to retreat as we can’t compete with their weapons. They could have saved thousands of lives," he said. Meanwhile, while Burmese people in exile were working hard to raise funds for the victims, I overheard a Burmese doctor at a gathering outside London comment, "They are giving too much to them. Foreigners don't understand our people." Some people could be as selfish and arrogant as the Burmese generals without having their power, I thought.

Some weeks after the storm, a farmer, the only survivor of his family, told a visiting foreign aid worker: "Thanks for nothing and for coming too late. Keep on helping tyranny." The farmer disappeared without a trace and nobody knows what happened to him.

Local people later said that the population of carnivorous crabs exploded at the end of the monsoon season and most of them exported to South East Asian nations. I didn’t have to wonder why the population of crabs exploded that year. But I still do wonder though how many people remembered to send words of comfort, not to mention presents, to the survivors at Christmas. "Speaking as a human being, there is a deep sense of hopelessness here," a religious figure who helped the survivors told me from Burma.

But all was not lost.

The most prominent journalist and political figure of Burma, Win Tin, was released in late September along with ten other political prisoners. Around 9000 criminals were released at the same time. His release was as unexpected as it was strange. He insisted on wearing his prison uniform as he argued he was evicted, not released.

Win Tin revived the fortunes of his battling party the National League for Democracy, rife with all kinds of problems. But , and it’s a big but , his efforts and those of thousands of others who sacrificed their lives in the fight for dignity would be just a waste of energy and lives unless the international community gives them solid help or stops supporting the generals through various means.

What is the future of Burma then?

Will the president-elect Barack Obama be a better man to ensure the freedom of Burma as many activists think? I dare not even dream of it, having seen the way previous presidents raised hope for democracy in Burma and petered out into mere babbling. At best, the new president will make the right noises about Burma at the beginning of his term.

For one thing, Obama has too many things on his plate to sort out as the most powerful leader on earth, such as the mess in Afghanistan, Iraq, Israel/Palestine and the global economic crisis, to name but a few. I would advise my countrymen that we should not pin our hopes on events abroad.

If anything, incidents in 2008 (and previous years) sent a clear message to all the people of Burma and the generals alike that we must all stop mentally depending on foreign powers, or accusing each other of depending on foreign powers if we are to achieve something resembling national identity, and go beyond the politics of emotion.

The reality is, Burma is not an island and we are not unique. We have to import foreign goods, ideas and support, and utilise them in an organic way, and we must export competitive ideas and materials abroad if we want to survive as a stable nation. At the moment, the only exports from Burma are natural resources, human beings and a feeling of resentment against all the people we are in touch with. Burma cannot survive on emotion alone and it needs the confidence to know its limits and potential in equal measure. The opposition groups must also remember that there is more than one solution to each problem and those who find the right ones are likely to be winners in the long run. In a word, we must stop our reliance on a magic bullet formula in politics, by really listening to the concerns of those at the grassroots level.

Of course, one could wait until everything falls down in Burma but by then it would have become a wasteland of second-hand ideological and material junk which would take even longer to clear. Having said that, Burma is already a wasteland in many ways despite its placid appearance and the orderly buildings one often sees on television frequented by finger pointing, green-uniformed generals. Look deep into their faces next time, you will see fear and inferiority in these handfuls of dust that have nothing else in their heads but the boredom of the devils who look after hell.

If Burma is to come out this episode of its dark and sordid history, the opposition groups and those who want to help the country must learn to chase pacific opportunities that work , not all the passing butterflies. Admittedly, opportunities have been lost because we were unable to sort out basic problems, thus storing up problems for the future for ourselves. I once retorted to my father that his generation had piled all the problems on us, and now our generation is likely to do the same if we are to just wait and see and mope around. All the ingredients for greater tragedies are there in Burma, but they could be averted if they were handled with less emotion and neurosis , as Burma is a geographical entity as well as a country of emotion.

Although there have been many suggestions and ideas as to how to solve the problems of Burma, they can only be realised through a combination of hard-thinking people and the actions of energetic experts who posses the efficiency of Nordic countries and the resilience and ruthlessness of the post-war Japanese generation who rebuilt their country from ashes.

The history of Burma has shown that good ideas or actions or foreign support alone are not enough to govern or rebuild a nation and maintain its soul.


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