Monday, 19 May 2008 - If there is anything that the killer Cyclone Nargis, which lashed Burma, has revealed about the country, it is – poverty, inhumanity and the sheer brutality of the military rulers. The cyclone struck Burma's Irrawaddy delta and Rangoon division on May 2 and 3, creating havoc among poor farmers who lived in houses which were not even properly constructed. A million have died over 2.5 million are homeless and starving while a heartless dictator schemes to hang on to power.
It also revealed how the people of Burma have been living below the poverty line under a repressive military junta, despite being one of the most promising nations during its Independence in 1948. It was once known as 'the rice bowl of Southeast Asia.'
More than two weeks after the cyclone struck Burma, the country's rulers are not bothered to undertake comprehensive rescue and support operations for the survivors. The death toll and devastation from the cyclone remains anybody's guess. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) estimates that more than 100,000 people died and the United Nations says 2.5 million people are affected.
While it is clear that the scale of devastation and death caused by Nargis is beyond the capability of any single country to cope with, the dead-end response and the tight leash on international aid workers to go into the worst affected regions hit by the cyclone proves the junta's brutality, callousness and irresponsibility towards the people. While over 100,000 died and more than 2.5 million Burmese peoples' lives have been devastated, the country's rulers went on with its planned referendum on a draft constitution, which critics said will entrench its rule.
This once again exposes that the military junta, which comprises the latest group of generals who maintain an unbroken rule in Burma since 1962, do not care if millions of its people die. They care only about one thing: to retain power. They are safe and sound in remote bunker-built Nay Pyi Taw.
Senior General Than Shwe is guilty of genocide, again in Burma.
Sources in the military establishment said, several low ranking officers and even Than Shwes' longtime allies ranged in the top ranks, have begun to sympathize with the people's sufferings and have suggested to the top boss to allow free flow of aid and access to aid workers to relieve the people's suffering. Several low raking officers in the military themselves have been affected as several of them belong to the region, hit hardest by the cyclone, and or have relatives and near and dear ones in the region.
Than Shwe, according to sources, is obsessed with clinging to power and continuing the legacy of military rule in the country. So much so that even when Burma's Meteorology and Hydrology department chief warned him of the cyclone and the scale of devastation it could cause, Than Shwe silenced him saying 'Don't announce anything that will create panic among the people before the referendum.'
Cyclone Nargis hit Haing Gyi Island on Friday, May 2 completely destroying the fishing town, and swept its way to other parts of the Delta and reached Rangoon on May 3, exactly a week before the junta's dream referendum. The Irrawaddy delta is the rice bowl of Burma. What will happen in the near future to peoples' staple food in the country– rice – one can imagine.
The junta, seeing the scale of devastation, reluctantly postponed the referendum date for 47 townships that have been hardest hit by the cyclone to May 24, while the rest of the country continued with the May 10 polling. Five days later, on May 15, the junta announced, what has been already predicted, that the constitution has been approved by 92.4 percent of voters, again without looking at the faces of cyclone survivors who are yet to vote.
Who on earth besides Than Shwe and his clique will believe in such a popular mandate for the brutal regime! Critics point out that there could have been a better way of telling a pure lie, when the junta said the voter turnout was 99.07 percent.
Now, more than two weeks after the cyclone struck, the junta continues to impose restrictions on the movement of aid workers. Except the junta's business cronies -- the 43 companies that have been assigned to do re-construction work in Irrawaddy delta -- other domestic NGOs and social workers are given access to the delta region only after they bribe the local authorities.
"One NGO had to give 1,000,000 Kyats [approximately 900 USD] to the local Mahyahkah [township authorities] to go into the delta region and conduct relief work," an aid worker in Rangoon said. No international aid workers have been allowed to go into the Irrawaddy delta, while the only few who went, have managed to sneak in.
While aid from the international communities including Burma's neighbouring countries have begun trickling into the country in the past week, the UN has estimated that only less than 25 percent of the affected people received initial relief.
Villagers in the cyclone impacted areas are seen lining up, at the sight of any vehicle that might be carrying aid for them. For these people, it does not matter where the aid comes from. All they care for is relief material that could alleviate their miseries.
The UN Secretary-General Ban ki-moon had warned that if aid continues to be delayed and rescue work is held up, a second wave of death will soon follow. Doctors, both local and international, have said cases of Diarrhea, Cholera and Asthma have been detected among the affected, and that the 'Second wave of Death' has begun to strike.
Doctors in the delta region said, at least 10,000 children are now affected by Cholera and there is growing concern over the rate at which the disease is spreading. Aid agencies have warned that thousands of Burmese children will starve to death in a few days time unless food is rushed to them. There is no more time for the international community to wait before the second wave of death strikes. Lives need to be saved.
It is time now that the cyclone survivors receive direct emergency aid and relief materials from whoever is giving. The military junta in Burma has once again failed to protect and help its own people who are in dire need.
Than Shwe, who refuses to open up the country for international aid agencies to come in, is safe in his newly built jungle capital while millions of Burmese people are on the verge of death.
He even refused to answer telephone calls by the UN Chief Ban ki-moon who is now planning to travel to Burma this week in a last ditch effort of the world body to allow free flow of aid and access to the cyclone impacted areas. After killing Buddhist monks on the streets, Than Shwe is now responsible for the death of millions of people and those dying everyday.
The international community has waited long enough. It is already now more than two weeks after the cyclone hit Burma that international aid is yet to reach most parts of Irrawaddy delta. The words-but-no-action of the world community has taken the lives of many Burmese people. It has pledged substantial amount of support and relief for Burma but it is also its responsibility to ensure that it reaches the cyclone survivors.
In September last year, when Buddhist monks led protests, the world community had waited until the Burmese military junta brutally cracked down killing hundreds of people and detaining thousands of protesters including activists and the highly revered Buddhist monks.
Now with Than Shwe, the junta head, refusing to help the people of Burma and exposing cyclone victims to death, the international community must act and fast. It becomes a joke when Than Shwe allows in about a hundred medical doctors from Burma's neighbouring countries for relief work. A hundred for 2.5 million affected cyclone survivors!
Than Shwe definitely does not view the cyclone's impact as a problem, leave alone a catastrophe, as he is more worried about his stranglehold on power. But just for one man, will the Burmese people be deprived of their right to receive humanitarian assistance and see their relatives and friends dying slowly?
The bottom line is: Than Shwe must go immediately. Whatever people in Burma need to do now, it has to be towards the removal of the heartless dictator to save the lives of millions of Burmese people.