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Abuse of power

Between help and submission

by Eleonore von Bothmer

In brief

UN Secretary-General Ban, Ki-moon surveying the Irrawaddy Delta on 22 May

UN Secretary-General Ban, Ki-moon surveying the Irrawaddy Delta on 22 May

The cyclone disaster in Burma came as yet more evidence of the dangers of climate change. But the harrowing scenes in the Irrawaddy Delta have highlighted more than that. They also show how the military regime’s hunger for power outweighs any desire to alleviate suffering – and how difficult it is for the international community to provide emergency relief in such countries.

“Foreign aid is welcome, foreign aid workers are not,” was the attitude of the Burmese government. For nearly three weeks after Cyclone Nargis devastated the river delta and destroyed millions of lives, the generals refused to let Asian medics into the country.

The scale of the suffering caused by the cyclone is massive. The media show images reminiscent of the tsunami at Christmas 2004: corpses drifting in brackish water, families beside the flattened houses and shacks that were once their homes. Even more shocking, however, was the lack of aid provided – not by the international community but by the people's own government.

In early May, Cyclone Nargis made 2.5 million people homeless. According to current estimates, the disaster claimed as many as 250,000 lives. Immediately, foreign relief teams were formed, equipped and ready for action; but the military regime refused to let them into the country.

Its obstructive stance kindled a debate on whether the international community should implement relief programmes against the government’s will. French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner was one of those who called for such a humanitarian mission. Voices of caution, however, pointed out that natural disasters are not among the crisis scenarios in which, under UN rules, the international community has a responsibility to protect a population from its government.

It made little sense to hand relief supplies over to the regime, however. Newspapers carried reports of international donations allegedly being pocketed by generals, and the UN reckoned that less than a third of the foreign food aid donated reached the people worst affected.

The last time the world had problems dealing with Burma was in autumn 2007, when the military regime brutally suppressed a revolt by Buddhist monks. The international community found itself with no leverage. ASEAN, the Association of South-East Asian Nations, which accepted Burma as a member in 1997, is bound by its Charter to observe a principle of “non-interference in the internal affairs of a member state”. As neighbours and major trading partners, China, India and Thailand could presumably exert some kind of influence, but they need resources and fear the chaos that would ensue if the multiethnic state were to break up.

The EU has done virtually no business with Burma since 1994, when it imposed sanctions on the regime. The same applies to the United States, which put sanctions in place in 1997.
As the people of Burma are already penalised by having to live under military rule, say the spokespersons of many aid organisations, they should not be abandoned in the wake of a natural catastrophe. In late May, ships from Britain, France and the United States were gathered off the Burmese coast, hoping to deliver relief aid, medicines and medical teams to where they were urgently needed for people dying of starvation, diarrhoea and disease.

Some donations were smuggled into the country through unofficial channels. Any Burmese citizen involved was running considerable personal risks.

Only three weeks after the devastating storm had struck, and after massive international pressure, did the junta finally agree to allow all aid agencies in, but reports of destructive official action continued. As D+C was going to print at the end of May, UN officials were still speaking of scaling up emergency relief “exponentially” soon. In the meantime, the regime in Rangoon had extended the house arrest of Aung Sang Suu Kyi, the prominent opposition leader, for yet another year.

(eli)