Tuesday, 20 May 2008

With the Junta or Without It


THE STORY of Cyclone Nargis, which devastated much of Burma more than two weeks ago, long ago moved from the tragic to the criminal. It is now becoming grotesque.

Diplomats from the United Nations and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations have announced they will hold a "donor conference" in Burma's capital on Sunday. This will allow foreign ministers from around the world to preen and promise millions in loans and grants for "reconstruction" that, if delivered, will enrich and empower the corrupt rulers of that unhappy nation. Meanwhile -- thanks to those same rulers -- as many as 3 million people affected by the cyclone will still be suffering, and in many cases dying, because the regime refuses to allow delivery of humanitarian aid on anything close to the scale that's needed.

If this sounds surreal -- what government would deliberately allow its citizens to sicken and die? -- it may be worth reviewing a few facts. Burma is a nation of about 50 million ruled by a clique of generals and hangers-on who overwhelmingly lost a free election in 1990. Rather than honoring the results, the generals imprisoned the winners; Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel peace laureate who leads the National League for Democracy, has been under strict house arrest for most of the past 18 years. In fact, her year-to-year detention is scheduled to end Sunday, the same day as the "donor conference"; will the foreign ministers be extending loans to the regime on the day it extends her confinement for another year? Meanwhile, in the years since the election, the junta has become known mostly for stealing its nation's plentiful natural resources, forcing children and others into slave labor, and trying to subdue autonomy-minded ethnic groups with mass rape and forced relocation.

It is these generals who failed to issue timely warnings to their population about the approaching cyclone; who, once the cyclone struck, lied about the scope of devastation; who refused to permit the delivery of needed food, water, tents and medicine; and who diverted their soldiers from rescue operations to enforce the conduct of a previously scheduled phony referendum enshrining their rule. Now those same soldiers are chasing reporters out of the disaster zone and confiscating aid from Buddhist monks and other Burmese trying to help their compatriots. Burma's generals are concerned about preserving power, not saving lives, and they fear that foreign aid workers would undermine the regime's legitimacy. So victims of the cyclone are left in the rain, without shelter; lying in mud, without bedding; hungry, without even rice. Every day the danger, and perhaps the reality -- with so few reporters on the scene, we can't be sure -- of cholera, diarrheal diseases, measles and dehydration grows. Meanwhile, a few miles offshore, U.S. and French ships are carrying tons of food and medicine, helicopters, and other tools and supplies.

Tomorrow, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon is scheduled to visit Burma. Good for him. Anything the secretary general can do to call attention to this horror is welcome. But Mr. Ban should not accept the junta's unilateral decision to move on to a "reconstruction" phase. On the contrary, he should make clear that other nations insist on a "humanitarian relief" phase and that they will attend no conferences if they cannot conduct assessments, on site, of true needs. He should make clear that any reconstruction will be conducted in concert with the National League for Democracy. He should warn the regime that the United States and Europe cannot extend loans to individuals and organizations under sanction for their repressive behavior.

And the United States, France, Britain and Indonesia and other neighboring countries should prepare to deliver immediate relief and save thousands of lives, whether or not Burma's generals want them saved. (Washington Post)

No comments: