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Commentary: How the world is failing Burma

A Lwin

May 23, 2008 (DVB), On 2 May, Cyclone Nargis hit the southern part of Irrawaddy division, passed through Rangoon and dissipated near the Burma-Thailand border.

Fortunately for me, I was living in Europe working with one of the many international organisations there. My family was not so fortunate, living near Rangoon, and had to sit through several hours of intense rain and wind as the storm made its way across Burma.

I wasn't aware that a cyclone had hit Burma until the morning of 4 May. I was shocked and it took me a while to absorb the news and realise that my family could be in danger.

Out of sheer luck, my family survived and our house suffered only minor damage to the roof which was quickly repaired. While many were equally fortunate, a lot more suffered far worse conditions and had nothing left but the clothes on their backs. Some did not even have that; the storm blew them off while they clung to trees for survival as Nargis tore away their homes and their families.

'Indirect genocide'

The Burmese government's response to the storm has left a lot to be desired and can be described as neglect and indirect genocide for a number of reasons.

The government received advance warning of Nargis and yet failed to give timely warning to the populace and the state weather forecasts did not in any way emphasise the severity of the cyclone.

Their reaction afterwards was even worse. The first people to help those who had suffered, to clear roads and debris so that people who needed help could be reached, and to provide shelter for those in need, were those also living in the cyclone-hit regions who were fortunate enough to have something left. Much of this help came from the religious figures of Burma, the Buddhist monks.

When government military forces arrived on the scenes of the disaster, they did one of two things; they stood by and watched as others worked to clear the debris and help victims or they told those who were trying to help to stop.

Immediately after the disaster, the international community rushed to gather resources and provide aid, including he United Nations and related international organisations who all have experience of dealing with the enormous task of providing aid and relief after such a disaster.

As I write, the people of Burma have received less than a tenth of the aid given to victims of the 2004 tsunami. Much of the aid they have received has come from foreign nations and NGOs but has been confiscated by the junta or relabeled as state aid.

Much more aid lies inside storehouses and cargo planes in neighboring countries and in French, UK and US naval vessels in the region awaiting permission from the junta to be flown into Burma.

Many aid workers and experts with the experience, knowledge and skills necessary to help rebuild the lives of the victims and prevent further deaths have been delayed or denied access.

The longer aid supplies and relief workers are kept waiting, the higher the chance that the death toll will increase even more.

As the military regime keeps dragging its feet, many people are pondering whether to send in aid regardless of the junta's stance. Nations such as the US and France are leaning towards this idea, while nations such as India and China claim it would be a violation of national sovereignty.

But how much weight does national sovereignty carry against the lives of several hundred thousand civilians who did not choose to be born in a country which is ruled by a totalitarian government? Is the sovereignty of a nation more important than the lives of people already struggling with poverty, lives destroyed by Cyclone Nargis?

In Burma, many people have low incomes, and do not have insurance or savings to help rebuild their homes and lives. The poor rural farmers in the rice-producing delta region have lost their crops close to harvest time, which is likely to cause rice shortages and high prices.

Not only is the government delaying the aid to be given to the people, they are also taking what little aid has been received and using it as a propaganda tool or as coercion to gain 'Yes' votes for the constitutional referendum. In free nations, elections and votes are carried out under the observation of independent groups who ensure the fairness of the voting process, but in Burma these groups have not been present. In many cases 'Yes' votes have been garnered through intimidation or the voter has been bypassed completely as polling officials have pre-ticked the ballots.

To top it all off, relief supplies which were donated to the people of Burma free of charge by the international community are being sold by the junta to the people who have lost everything. How does the junta expect people, especially those in the hardest hit areas, to pay for these supplies?

No matter how much China, India, the UN and the world hides behind policies of non-interference and national sovereignty or how much they pretend or wish the crisis in Burma did not exist, it will not go away. Unless physical action is taken against the military junta which has openly defied the international community, hundreds of thousands more Burmese will face a slow and cruel death.

No matter how much diplomatic and political pressure is applied, no matter how many sanctions are imposed, as long as nations like neighbouring China, India and Thailand are unfairly profiting from the country's natural resources in collusion with the corrupt junta, the people of Burma will never be able to live in freedom or rise above poverty.

Global responsibility

In the past century the world has become smaller due to advances in communications and transportation technology. Nations no longer stand alone; the acts of one nation can have an effect on the other side of the world.

To reach this point the world has had to face two global wars and countless millions of lives have been sacrificed. Yet even with the development of the concept of a global community the world still tolerates illegitimate governments which are given free rein to commit atrocities against innocents during peacetime. Nations can no longer be self-centered and care only about themselves; it is the age where nations need to look out for each other.

Former US president Thomas Jefferson once said that the tree of liberty needed to be refreshed with the blood of patriots and tyrants from time to time. Since the 1988 student protests in Burma the tree of liberty has been fed the blood of many thousands of patriots and innocents but very few tyrants.

While people are suffering and at risk of disease and death, the junta is prioritizing the referendum over the needs of the victims and the world is debating what to do.

The junta used lethal force against peacefully protesting civilians and monks in 2007, just as it does against ethnic minorities in Burma in what amounts to a genocidal campaign. When Hitler's Germany used lethal force to oppress people of other ethnicities, the world went to war for it, the United Nations was formed and genocide was deemed a crime against humanity. At least Hitler had the wisdom to hide his atrocities and separate the death camps from the rest of the population. To Than Shwe on the other hand, the entire nation is his Auschwitz where he keeps the people locked up under oppressive rule and boasts to the world that he can do as he pleases.

If Than Shwe is allowed to remain in power unchecked the world will, through its inaction, be allowing hundreds of thousands of people to die from disease and starvation. And the world would be just as guilty as the junta, soaked with the blood of innocents.

A Lwin is a Burmese national living and working in Europe


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