Asia Times Online, Hong Kong
June 20, 2008
Reverting to their tried and tested diplomatic strategy of making concessions and then not following through on those commitments, Burma's ruling junta appears to be weathering yet another storm of international criticism over its controversial handling of the Cyclone Nargis disaster.
The military regime's recent agreements with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the United Nations (UN) to allow international relief workers and aid into the country to help handle the humanitarian crisis was greeted with guarded optimism by the international community. Foreign donors have since taken a wait-and-see posture to the junta's request for US$11.7 billion in reconstruction and rehabilitation and recent developments should give them pause.
Cyclone Nargis, which made landfall on May 2, killed an estimated 135,000 people, although the junta only officially claims 78,000, a figure it has not updated since mid-May. The UN estimates that 2.4 million people were affected by the killer storm and 1 million are still in need of help. Senior US government officials have characterized the junta's callous response to the disaster as "criminally negligent".
Now the UN and ASEAN are at risk of abetting what many view as the junta's crimes against humanity through its initial lack of response and subsequent obstruction of aid deliveries associated with the natural disaster. One month into the internationalized relief effort, there are growing signs that the junta has reneged on its promises to better address the humanitarian crisis, raising difficult questions about whether the international community should or should not pledge billions of dollars to Burma's government to rebuild and rehabilitate disaster-hit areas.
The junta's concession to allow increased access for aid workers and relief shipments came at the end of a three-day mission to Burma by UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon to cyclone-affected areas and his meeting on May 23 with Burma's reclusive leader, Senior General Than Shwe, who before the high-profile visit had refused to accept Ban's phone calls about the cyclone disaster. ASEAN has since established a coordinating body of nine members to manage the international relief effort, with three representatives each from the Myanmar government, UN and ASEAN.
ASEAN secretary general Surin Pitsuwan referred to the arrangement as an "international social contract" upon unveiling the plan to foreign journalists in Bangkok in late May. At that same time, the United States, United Kingdom and France all had warships laden with aid situated off Burma's coast. Earlier, France's Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner had suggested that the UN and Western countries unilaterally force aid on Myanmar if the generals refused to receive foreign assistance.
Editorials in several leading international papers and this publication raised the prospect of a US-led, UN-endorsed exercising of the global body's "right to protect" mandate, where the US military could have delivered aid to the estimated two million people worst affected in remote Irrawaddy Delta region.
During a May 25 donor conference held in Rangoon and attended by representatives from 44 countries, ministers from the 10 ASEAN nations, and several UN agencies, Thein Sein made it clear that all aid work and assistance was welcome as long as it came with "no strings attached". He told the conference, "We will warmly welcome any assistance and aid which are provided with genuine good will from any country or organization providing that there are no strings attached, nor politicization involved."
Following the conference, Ban deemed the mission a success saying, "Senior General Than Shwe agreed to allow all international aid workers to operate freely and without hindrance. The Myanmar government appears to be moving toward the right direction to implement these accords." Ban later added: "I think the Myanmar government is moving fast in the right direction." ASEAN's top representative Surin told a Bangkok press conference: "We are prying the country open step-by-step ... There is a reciprocal sense of urgency."
Show us the money
Representatives at the donor conference, however, were less convinced, judging by the meager $50 million to $100 million they initially pledged. That lackluster response was due to several governments' concerns that Burma would not honor its commitments and was rushing to reconstruct disaster areas before the relief and rescue missions had been satisfactorily completed. Nearly one month later, Ban's optimism has arguably not been borne out in practice.
Nor have donor commitments been forthcoming. As of June 13, the UN had received only $88.5 million of its $201 million target for relief-oriented aid. Some countries have delayed their pledged disbursements due to their concerns about government restrictions on how aid has been distributed and reports that displaced villagers have been forced back by government authorities to their home areas without proper food, water or shelter.
Realizing that a US military-led, UN-endorsed humanitarian intervention was off the table, Burma's generals have since hardened their stance and imposed new bureaucratic hurdles against international humanitarian assistance and domestic donor groups which have inhibited the efficient and equitable distribution of aid.
New government guidelines were issued on June 9 stipulating that UN agencies and all international and domestic relief groups must seek permission for travel and aid distribution from several different authorities, including government ministries. So-called township coordination committees must also be kept informed of aid workers' movements and activities, according to the new guidelines.
In addition, several sources indicated that permission has to be obtained from local military, Light Infantry Division 66 and the Southwest Command responsible for the Irrawaddy Delta region. Relief workers in the Delta say that they must tell the exact name of the village they are going to and what supplies they are bringing and be accompanied by a government official at all times.
Prior to this announcement, foreigners working with relief agencies who wanted access to the worst-hit Delta areas had to obtain official permission from the Ministry of Defense, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Social Welfare. By June 10, 195 foreign workers had been issued visas by the junta and the UN's World Food Program was operating 10 helicopters.
On June 11, the World Food Program confirmed that it had been told by the government that they would no longer be able to buy relief rice domestically and would have to receive government permission to import rice. A more worrying sign of the regime's hardening line on relief aid have been the recent arrests and increased restrictions on domestic donors, who to date have played a key role in the amount of relief which has been distributed.
Local donors had earlier identified the payment of bribes, fees to use roads and bridges, and even confiscation of aid by the authorities as major hindrances to their efforts. Now they also risk harassment and even imprisonment. Twenty-five cyclone survivors from Dagon township, including women and children, were arrested by authorities on June 10 on their way to the United Nations Development Program offices in Rangoon to plead for more assistance.
Their arrests were followed by the recent detention of three local aid workers in Rangoon and prominent activist and journalist Zaw Thet Htway, who had helped organize volunteer cyclone relief. The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners based in Mae Sot, Thailand, claims that 10 domestic donors have been arrested since the beginning of the month.
Instead, the government is angling to monopolize the distribution of local aid. An announcement in the state-mouthpiece New Light of Myanmar newspaper on June 16 said that local donations could now be made through the government-run Rehabilitation and Reconstruction Sub-committee of the National Disaster Preparedness Central Committee and through district and township offices. This was viewed by many local donors as an order rather than a request. Previous announcements that aid donations could be "more effectively" distributed if given to government organizations had been largely ignored.
Many fear the government's attempts to limit how money and donations are distributed will discourage many from continuing to donate. Local donors note that, since the WFP is providing only rice, villagers have relied on them to provide other staples such as salt, vegetables, meat and oil. If local donors are forced to channel their assistance through government organizations, it is widely feared that much of the food aid would be in the direct control of the junta, which has already caused international aid shipments to disappear into government warehouses from where their contents have reappeared in local markets at inflated prices.
Indeed, where the junta sees the potential for making money, it has adopted a more conciliatory approach. In a move hailed by the concerned agencies and organizations as a sign of increased cooperation, 250 experts from the UN, Burmese government and ASEAN last week began a village-by-village survey to determine how much food, water and shelter was still needed.
The projected cost of reconstructing houses and schools and rehabilitating the agricultural sector is also being evaluated by the joint assessment team. That broad assessment will be completed on June 24 and released to the public the following week. It will also be used by the junta as a quasi-independent figure to present to the international donors who rejected their initial $11.7 billion appeal.
Big donors like the US, Australia and European countries, including the Netherlands, Germany, Denmark and Sweden, which had previously said their donations were contingent on greater access, have yet to indicate to what extent they are satisfied or otherwise by the junta's recent actions. The US Senate on June 12 renewed its import restrictions on goods produced in Burma, after previously committing $35 million in relief and the use of US military aircraft for aid delivery to Yangon airport.
The New Light of Myanmar carried a scathing editorial on June 13 that many observers believe targeted the US, claiming, "The goodwill of a big Western nation that wants to help Myanmar with its warships was not genuine." Myanmar's state media had voiced fears in the past that the US could use humanitarian assistance as a pretense to invade the country George W Bush administration officials have frequently referred to as an "outpost of tyranny" due to the junta's abysmal rights record.
In perhaps the clearest display that the generals have no intention of changing their repressive ways was the regime's decision, two days after the international donor conference, to extend the house arrest of Nobel Peace Prize winner and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi for a sixth consecutive year. The continued detention of the democratic opposition leader was apparently not open to discussion during Ban's meetings with top Myanmar officials. Ban said that while he regretted the junta's decision, he had been in Burma on "purely humanitarian grounds".
Critics suggest that the regime is employing the same tactics it has used in the past to deflect intense international criticism. They contend the generals used a similar routine after their crackdown last year on Buddhist monk-led protests garnered worldwide media attention. After the junta agreed to meet with UN special envoy to Burma Ibrahim Gambari, the generals showed signs of conciliation but continued to round up and detain protest leaders once international attention focused elsewhere.
Many Burma watchers and exiled opposition groups say that the UN has fallen into the same trap through its diplomatic overtures in the wake of the cyclone. As global media interest in the cyclone's aftermath wanes, the junta is fast returning to its oppressive ways and continues to treat the disaster more as a national security threat than a humanitarian mission.
The same critics say that ASEAN is also allowing itself to be used by the junta for its own cynical political purposes. Rather than leveraging its influence on Burma to respond more humanely to the crisis, the regional grouping has functioned more as a pressure valve for the junta to escape international condemnation.
The ASEAN secretary general was upbeat after the donor conference telling journalists, "We have been able to establish a space, a humanitarian space, however small to engage with the Myanmar authorities," Surin said. "That humanitarian space needs to be sustained through political decisions, through political flexibility."
During a more recent one-day ASEAN Leadership Forum, Surin told the attendees that a "new ASEAN" has emerged from its response to the disaster in Burma. He stated his belief that ASEAN has shown the world that the grouping was up to the responsibility placed on it, saying, "It just so happened that we are being baptized by the Cyclone Nargis. That is the test of our new ASEAN."
Burma was allowed to join ASEAN in 1997, amid strong international protests, after providing assurances that it would take steps to move towards more openness and democracy. Despite this and repeated criticisms of ASEAN for not pressuring Burma more, the grouping has stood by its member nation in the interest of regional solidarity and its long-held policy of non-interference in the domestic affairs of members.
Countries in the region, some say, would also stand to profit from reconstruction and rehabilitation contracts, assuming the international community is willing to foot the bill. Despite the fact a million Burmese citizens are still in desperate need of aid and assistance, two Thai medical teams that had been working under an ASEAN banner in the Irrawaddy Delta area recently returned to Thailand after Burmese officials told them that their assistance was no longer required and that local doctors had the situation under control.
The removal of the Thai medical teams stands in stark contradiction to the assessment of most foreign aid workers, who now say the bolstered relief and assistance program will have to be sustained at the very least until the end of the year, while local groups and residents say the international effort will take much longer to achieve stability. Whether the military regime's patience with a foreign presence will last that long, particularly if the billions of dollars in reconstruction aid it has requested are not forthcoming, remains a crucial humanitarian question.