Thursday, 22 May 2008

Altsean Suggests Compromise over International Aid

The Irrawaddy News

Burma democracy activist Debbie Stothard, coordinator of the Alternative Asean Network (Altsean), spoke to The Irrawaddy about the role of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) in helping survivors of Burma’s cyclone.

Question: Asean has announced that the bloc will set up a task force to handle distribution of foreign aid for cyclone victims in Burma and will work with the UN to hold a donor conference in Rangoon on May 25. How much difference will it make to have international relief experts on the ground in Burma?

Answer: We certainly hope that this will open the doors for relief experts. The SPDC [the Burmese government] must understand that they cannot get something for nothing. If they want access to urgently-needed aid to rebuild the damage and threat to the economy caused by Cyclone Nargis, they must allow relief experts in to help the people. If they obstruct the Asean-led mechanism, Asean should wash their hands of the regime and endorse a humanitarian intervention. That means Indonesia and Vietnam must use their position at the UN Security Council to permit such intervention.

Q: Supplies are one thing, and getting them to the affected areas along with skilled support staff is another. Is it your understanding that foreign, Asian aid staff will be allowed unhindered access in numbers sufficient to make a difference?

A: We are extremely worried that despite the nice declaration made in Singapore on Monday there is no specific guarantee that this will happen. It must happen. Stopping aid supplies and aid experts from reaching those areas would be the equivalent of murdering those survivors—men, women and children.

Q: The meeting agreed that this Asean-led approach was "the best way forward" while Burma is still ignoring help from the western countries. Can Asean countries take the leadership role and pull this off? Or, as is the case in the past, will it be more words than real action?

A: This is the test of Asean's ability and will. If Asean's leaders don't pull this off, they deserve to be dropped off in the worst-affected parts of the Irrawaddy delta without clean water, supplies or equipment. They have already caused a lot of damage by their previous inaction on this crisis.

Q: Will Asean have a way to get aid directly into the delta? Aid through Rangoon will create a bottleneck. Aid must be delivered by helicopters to the most remote areas. Will Asean push for airborne access, via helicopters or air drops, directly into the delta?

A: If Asean wants to use the most practical and effective way, it is essential they use helicopters to deliver supplies, equipment and personnel.

Q: Asean Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan said that he has already received support from the UNOCHA and the World Bank. But the World Bank said it is not in a position to give aid to Burma, saying the cyclone-hit country has been in debt repayment arrears since 1998. How will Asean hope to get the money necessary, which, according to some sources, could be as much as US $10 billion?

A: Asean itself does not have that kind of money to spare on such an effort. This is why it must convince the SPDC to cooperate with the international community, which has already pledged assistance. The SPDC is getting billions of dollars in revenue from exploiting Burma's natural resources. They should use that money to rebuild the infrastructure of the delta.

Q: Do you expect the leadership of Asean to take a proactive role?

A: Asean cannot afford to be the silent partner in this situation.

We believe Dr Surin knows what to do but he needs the wholehearted and united backing of Asean governments and his secretariat.

Q: What else can Asean do to get Burma to open up to allow international experts
and aid to get to the cyclone victims rapidly and directly?

A: Well, for a start Asean could borrow the services and equipment of the various foreign navies anchored off the coast of Burma, and on standby in Thailand. Those assets are ready and waiting. Asean can also start transporting the supplies from those ships into the delta area. Since the SPDC is so afraid of being attacked with food and medicines, that could be the most productive compromise for now.

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