Burma and the Winds of Change


Universe Column

Sunday June 1st

Following the catastrophic effects of Cyclone Nargis on the people of Burma, the first instinct of decent men and women was to look for a humanitarian and compassionate response.

The first instinct of the Burmese military regime was to forestall life saving aid from reaching the desperate and to have a scandalous disregard for the suffering of their people.

The Foreign Secretary, David Milliband, said the regime was guilty of “malign neglect.”

The United Nations put the death rate as at least 100,000, with 220,000 people missing. Close to 2 million people have been affected and ten days after the cyclone only one third of the affected population had been reached. It is estimated that the ultimate death toll could be eight times as great as the fatalities caused by the 2004 Tsunami.

World Food Programme told me that because of the obstacles that the regime had erected just 10% of the logistics required had been put in place and only 20% of the required food had reached those who need it.

Throughout the Irrawaddy Delta area vast numbers of villages have been devastated, thousands of homes destroyed and more than 3,000 schools damaged.  Further rains in the weeks ahead are likely to compound an already desperate situation. Once the dead have been buried there will be a desperate need for long term rehabilitation and reconstruction – something the military junta is incapable of doing.

The genius of most modern humanitarian responses to natural disasters has been to move in quickly and to provide safe water, elementary medical support and food. This, in circumstances like the Tsunami, has meant that after the initial fatalities, the subsequent level of fatalities has been kept low.

In Burma, the consequences of the regime’s callous behaviour have been disastrous. Forty relief planes should have been arriving every day at Rangoon airport. Vast amounts of equipment, medicines, water sanitation, and food was stockpiled and ready to go. The Burmese military -having failed to warn the people of the impending cyclone – then refused to let more than a handful of planes arrive.  They even initially refused to allow the intervention of the Red Cross. Too little came and much of it too late.

The failure to act quickly in Burma has condemned people to long and lingering deaths – with cholera and typhoid now claiming lives that could have been saved.

The effect on generous western donors has been equally disastrous. Pictures and stories showing Burmese soldiers seizing for themselves what little aid that had been allowed in; and others painstakingly striking out the names of donor countries and agencies and re-branding aid as “a gift from the Burmese government” have led to western donors declining to give.

What kind of government diverts humanitarian assistance for starving people to its army’s barracks, or sells it on the free market?

Over the past couple of months the price of rice in Burma had already risen by 30%. This, and the worldwide shortage of food (made worse by the ludicrous decision in the West to turn over vast areas of arable land for the production of bio fuels) threatens to leave the entire population of Burma (and other countries, too) at risk of massive food shortages.

While these shocking events have been taking place the military regime used its scant resources to hold a phoney national referendum on a new constitution which few Burmese have even seen. The regime did not even bother to have it translated into the native language of Burma’s many ethnic minorities. It’s a constitution that among other things would ban Aung San Suu Kyi and virtually every other credible political leader from running for political office.

The United Nations Special rapporteur on human Rights in Burma, Paulo Pinheiro, eloquently summed up the sham nature of this process with the words: “If you believe in gnomes trolls and elves, you can believe in this democratic process in Burma.”

But with respect to Mr.Pinheiro should we believe in the international community either?

Contrast our willingness to occupy and subdue sovereign territories from Kosovo to Afghanistan with our unwillingness to invade Burmese airspace in order to drop in supplies to the sick and starving.  I happen to believe in the doctrine of liberal interventionism and despite the cack handed way in which some of its supporters have gone about it, I still do. We intervened in Bosnia in 1992, Somalia in 1993, Kosovo in 1998 and Sierra Leone in 2000 – all to good effect.  Our interventions were successful and saved lives.  Our failures since 2000 do not invalidate the legitimacy of liberal interventionism (and look what happens, for instance in Rwanda, and Darfur, when we do not: hundreds of thousands of people die).

David Milliband is right to talk of Burma’s “malign neglect” but what did his Cabinet colleague, Douglas Alexander (the Minister for Development and Aid), mean when he said it would be “incendiary” for the international community to drop aid into the Irrawaddy delta?  Couldn’t the same argument be used to prevent intervention anywhere in the world?  And there is a considerable difference between violating a country’s air space in order to drop food and aid to its suffering people and entering its air space in order to initiate a military offensive.

Putting out press statements and the ritual condemnations is not much help to a dying man clinging to driftwood.

The secretive military junta that rules Burma moved its control centre to a remote jungle location. That may have spared them the harsh winds of the cyclone but it will not spare them from the winds of change that are blowing throughout the land.

Last year’s murder of the Buddhist monks who led the popular protests have not been forgotten by Burmese people. Nor have their genocide and atrocities against ethnic minorities like the Karen.

As the Burmese mourn their dead, and think about the rebuilding of their homes, many see the cyclone as the signal to sweep out this oppressive regime and to rebuild their entire country. We should help them do that in any way we can.