May 14, 2008 (DVB)‚ "We cannot allow politics to obstruct the delivery of assistance that can prevent this grave humanitarian situation from getting worse," said US presidential candidate Hillary Clinton yesterday.
However, like it or not, politics will shape the outcome of this humanitarian crisis. The regime's refusal to allow international aid workers with the necessary expertise into Burma to co-ordinate the humanitarian relief effort – and its control over the distribution of aid – is of course politically motivated.
Than Shwe’s regime has long-operated a policy of divide-and-rule amongst its own people, in order to maintain its stranglehold on power. Despite the humanitarian crisis gripping the country, this policy is becoming ever more entrenched. While the junta grants some privileges to those who support them, they oppress those they cannot control.
According to several reliable sources from Rangoon, general Thein Sein, the junta’s prime minister, yesterday spoke to a group of businessmen who were assigned to carry out relief operations in the Irrawaddy delta area, on behalf of the junta. They were allowed into the worst-hit areas as long as they didn't bring cameras.
However, monks , who played such an important role in the popular uprisings last year – and ordinary citizens have been threatened and intimidated by the military and their hired thugs for their efforts to help.
Reports from the ground indicate that hospitals in the affected areas are full of injured cyclone survivors. Doctors and nurses on duty are greatly outnumbered by patients and are already at breaking point. Despite this, the authorities are refusing help from Burmese volunteer doctors.
Reports have emerged of some doctors – who entered refugee camps to look after emergency cases – being interrogated over and over again by local authorities and branches of the Union Solidarity and Development Association until they were forced to leave. In defiance of the regime some of those doctors have started to build booths along the roadsides and are giving free medical assistance to those who need it.
Millions of water purification tablets and other medicines have recently been distributed to hospitals by international organizations and donors. But doctors cannot distribute the medicines to the general population, because they are so busy treating survivors. Stockpiles of medicines have been seen just sitting in hospitals and dispensaries, when they should be distributed urgently.
Like the other donated goods already siphoned off for sale at the markets , UN raincoats, WFP towels – the medicines are likely to appear for sale rather than go to the people who desperately need them.
The situation on the ground leaves aid workers and NGOs in a difficult position. As foreign and local journalists are largely banned from entering the devastated areas and reporting on the crisis, it is understandable that some aid workers say they are uncomfortable speaking in public to reporters for fear that associating with media could jeopardize their relief efforts.
The regime – in particular Than Shwe – has long peddled its version of the 'truth' to both its own people and the international community, and holds a deep mistrust of anyone who dares to tell the truth, regardless of whether they are Burmese, Asian or Western. In order to satisfy general Than Shwe, elaborate aid-giving ceremonies are being staged, showing the generals handing out aid to people in daily news bulletins. It is pure propaganda to hide the truth that ordinary Burmese people are facing death and destruction on a massive scale.
The regime doesn't want its people to be united. It doesn't want countries to be united. And now the military regime is using its divide-and-rule policy among key international players like the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, China, India, the US and the European Union.
The policy is designed to protect the regime's power and privileges, and in the longer term, to win international legitimacy and support for its state constitution. We should be careful of such tactics.
Whilst the principle of national sovereignty should be respected, that should not be at the cost of human life. If a debate on national sovereignty continues to divide the international community's response, key international players risk falling foul of the junta's divide-and-rule tactics.
Surin Pitsuwan, secretary-general of ASEAN, recently stated that the Burmese junta asked ASEAN to lead aid efforts because of its "lingering suspicions" of Westerners. Given the regime's widespread mistrust of anyone outside of its military forces and state-sponsored groups like USDA and the Swan Arr Shin, ASEAN should beware any attempt by the regime to hide behind the "legitimacy" of its ASEAN membership in order to manipulate the situation to its advantage.
Even though the international community and humanitarian experts have vocally expressed their worries about the crisis unfolding in the country, the military regime doesn’t seem to share their concern.
After a meeting with navy Commander-in-Chief Soe Thein, Timothy Keating head of the US Pacific Command reported, "[He] characterized activity there as returning back to normal — his words," Keating said. "[He said] people are coming back to their villages, they’re planting their crops for the summer season, the monsoon will come and wash all the saltwater out of the ponds. His manner, his demeanor, his attitude indicated something less than very serious concern."
Than Shwe is playing a dangerous political game by obstructing the delivery of vital aid which would prevent this grave humanitarian situation from worsening. In order to avoid the further loss of human life, the international community must stand united and enter Burma now to deliver the aid which is so desperately needed.