Friday, 9 May 2008

US threatens food aid drops on Burma

A US official has suggested the American military could drop unauthorised food aid over Burma, as the White House expressed outrage at the junta's obstruction of international relief efforts in the wake of Cyclone Nargis.

The food drop suggestion was quickly shot down by US Defence Secretary Robert Gates, but four American Navy ships were nonetheless heading towards Burma and US helicopters and air force cargo planes loaded with supplies and personnel began arriving in Thailand.

The mobilisation came amid growing pressure on the junta to open up Burma to aid, as the UN warned that 1.5 million people had been ``severely affected'' by the cyclone that swept through on Saturday.

The storm is feared to have killed 100,000 people, but the US Government believes existing stocks of relief supplies in Burma might be enough for only about 10,000 people.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice phoned her Chinese counterpart to ask Beijing to persuade Burma to accept international aid.

In New York, US envoy to the United Nations Zalmay Khalilzad said Washington was "outraged" by the Burmese Government's delays in allowing relief workers and aid shipments.

. “We are shocked by the behaviour of the Government. It should be a no brainer to accept the offer made by the international community,” he said.

Mr Gates also spoke out forcefully, saying the Pentagon was preparing the same kind of assistance it provided after other disasters in the region, including the 2004 Asian tsunami and the 2005 Pakistan earthquake.

"There is an opportunity here to save a lot of lives and we are fully prepared to help and to help right away, and it would be a tragedy if these assets - if people didn't take advantage of them," Mr Gates said.

“We are on the cusp of a second wave of tragedy . . . It’s a race against time,” Australia’s Tim Costello, chief executive of the charity World Vision, said from Rangoon. “The urgency is great. The level of suffering is enormous.” Aid was arriving “in a trickle but it needs to be a flood because lives are hanging in the balance”.

Mr Costello said helicopters were the only way to get the supplies needed to avert an epidemic of malaria, dysentry and cholera but the Burmese military did not have enough.

The US and Burma have long been estranged. President George W. Bush imposed a new round of sanctions on the country's military leaders just last week to pressure them on human rights and political reform.

Thailand’s Prime Minister has offered to negotiatate on Washington’s behalf, but the regime is refusing to accept US assistance. It asked Washington only for satellite photographs of the devastated area.

In the meantime, the Pentagon moved aircraft and ships toward Burma to be ready should aid be allowed to commence.

Four ships, including the destroyer USS Mustin and the three-vessel Essex Expeditionary Strike Force, would be off the coast in about five days, carrying about 1800 Marines.

The Pentagon has moved many of the 23 helicopters on board the USS Essex, which has been participating in a multinational humanitarian exercise in the region, to a staging area in Thailand where they are waiting permission to enter Burma. Three giant C-130 cargo planes and a C-17 loaded with relief supplies are also waiting there.

A week after the cyclone the first international aid flights were allowed into Burma yesterday. Four UN planes carrying 40 tons of high-energy food and other supplies landed in Rangoon, and a Red Cross plane arrived from Kuala Lumpa carrying shelter kits for 2000 people.

But other relief flights were still awaiting permission to fly in, scores of disaster experts were struggling to get visas and two of a four-strong UN disaster assessment team were turned back at Rangoon. “This is an unacceptable situation,” said Sir John Holmes, the UN Humanitarian co-ordinator.

The regime is letting in planes and ships from countries such as Thailand, Singapore and Bangladesh that it trusts, but remains deeply suspicious of aid from western nations.

It is allowing free access to the disaster areas to nongovernmental organisations already in Burma, Mr Costello said. The problem, he added, was that the NGOs already working in Burma were focused primarily on development, not disaster relief.

The Australian

Nargis may end up bolstering Myanmar’s generals

By Ed Cropley

BANGKOK (DAWN): After 46 years of unbroken military rule, many people both inside and outside Myanmar think it will take an act of God to get rid of the generals.

Inevitably, the former Burma’s frustrated exile community are seeing the catastrophic destruction wrought by Cyclone Nargis as just such an event, hoping the economic fallout and misery will spark either a popular uprising or split within the military.

Neither is likely, analysts say.

Many of Myanmar’s deeply superstitious 53 million people are likely to blame the storm on “bad karma” from the despotism of junta supremo Than Shwe, Burmese and European analysts said on Thursday.

But those living in the heavily populated Irrawaddy delta will be far too busy in the months ahead rebuilding their lives and homes to worry about rising up.

“People are absolutely preoccupied with survival food, water, health, their relatives, getting their jobs back, rebuilding their houses,” former Australian ambassador to Yangon Trevor Wilson said.

“Politics is the last thing on their minds at the moment.”

With the memories of the bloody suppression of last Septembers’ monk-led protests still fresh in people’s minds, one taxi driver put it even more succinctly.

“There won’t be demonstrations,” he told a reporter in Yangon, or Rangoon as it used to be called.“People don’t want to be shot.”

LUCKY STARS?: Ironically, the cyclone – Asia’s worst since 143,000 people were killed in Bangladesh in 1991 might even end up bolstering Than Shwe’s status because of his decision to move the capital to Naypyidaw, 400kms north of Yangon, in 2005.

At the time everybody thought he was mad, but with 100,000 people feared dead in the Irrawaddy delta, and Yangon strewn with rubble and fallen trees, some might say it was either a very lucky, or very prescient, move.

Whatever the reason, the junta’s escape from much of the destruction is only likely to confirm in the minds of its leaders that they have an almost supernatural mandate to continue to run the country.

“It is said that Than Shwe’s astrologer told him to move the capital because Rangoon would suffer a calamity,” said Derek Tonkin, a former British ambassador to neighbouring Thailand.

“So his karma has been saved and it is the people who have suffered, not the generals,” he said.

Others agreed, especially given the junta’s own relentless propaganda about the need for a strong armed forces to keep the country together and on an even keel.

“They might all conclude that it was because of his leadership the government was no longer in Yangon and in the path of the cyclone,” British academic Robert Taylor said.

“As a command and control centre away from the zone of destruction, it was capable of continuing to operate while the rest of southern Myanmar suffered,” he said.

If the regime manages to overcome its innate distrust of the outside world and throw open its doors to an international humanitarian mission, including military flights from arch enemy the United States, it might even win some popularity. And however callous it might seem, the junta’s decision to proceed on Saturday with a constitutional referendum part of its seven-step “roadmap to democracy” in all but the worst-hit areas, does not smack of a government worried about its future.—Reuters

Defense secretary says he cannot imagine dropping aid into Myanmar without junta's permission

WASHINGTON (IHT): Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Thursday the U.S. military was stepping up preparations for a relief mission in Myanmar, but he said he could not imagine air dropping aid without permission from the closed regime.

His comments followed those earlier Thursday by Ky Luu, director of the U.S. Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance, that an air drop was one option being considered as Myanmar's junta continued to stall on accepting assistance from the United States.

Gates said the military was moving aircraft, ships and Marines closer to Myanmar in case permission is granted to deliver humanitarian supplies.

"I cannot imagine us going in without the permission of the Myanmar government," Gates said at a Pentagon news conference with Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the top ranking U.S. military officer.

Asked if it would be helpful to victims for the U.S. to drop supplies, Mullen said: "We could. Typically, though, it's sovereign airspace and you'd need their permission to fly in that airspace."

"It's all tied to sovereignty, which we respect whether it's on the ground or in the air," Mullen said.

Luu told a State Department press conference earlier that air drops are often inefficient, could have broader international legal implications and that the best option would be for Myanmar, which is also known as Burma, to accept the aid.

Still, "anything that might have a positive impact is being looked at and is being discussed," he said, adding that air drops would be a last resort.

The comments came as the United States and other donor countries continued to wait for permission to enter with tons of assistance and disaster relief personnel to assess what the needs are and move toward distributing the aid.

Among other countries considering air drops are Italy and France, whose foreign minister has suggested the possibility of forcing assistance into Myanmar, officials said.

Pentagon officials have said they are wary of such a scenario because it could be considered an invasion. But French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said this week that air drops could be allowed under the U.N.'s "responsibility to protect" mandate, which applies to civilians.

Officials said there were several problems with unauthorized air drops, especially if there are no experts on the ground to monitor the distribution of aid. Desperate people could riot over the assistance and there is the possibility that security forces might confiscate it and keep it out of the hands of the needy, they said.

The government has reported more than 20,000 deaths and more than 40,000 missing from Cyclone Nargis that hit Myanmar, particularly the Irrawaddy River delta, last weekend. A U.S. diplomat said Wednesday that the death toll in the delta could exceed 100,000. The U.N. estimates that a million people have been left homeless.

Meanwhile Thursday, the U.S. military stepped up preparations for any humanitarian mission to Myanmar, readying ships and Marines that were in the region for a multinational exercise.

The U.S. Air Force moved more airplanes to a staging area in Thailand and the Navy transported Marines of the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit and helicopters into Thailand from an aviation combat element of the USS Essex expeditionary strike group, officials said. The Essex and other Navy ships began heading later Thursday toward waters off Myanmar, a journey that Mullen said would take five days.

The Navy happened to have ships and thousands of service members in the Gulf of Thailand for a multinational exercise on humanitarian missions — an exercise called Cobra Gold that started Thursday.

"The Essex group ... either has or is (still) offloading some helicopters to be available in Thailand, because they could reach Myanmar in a very short — in a matter of hours from Thailand — with relief supplies," Gates said. "There are also I think six C-130s available."

Officials said that although the military junta has not agreed to allow U.S. humanitarian assistance, it did ask for some other U.S. help — satellite pictures of the cyclone-devastated areas.

"They asked our defense attache at the embassy in Rangoon for some imagery and we provided it," said Marine Maj. Stuart Upton, a Pentagon spokesman.

Separately, the U.S. Senate passed a resolution urging humanitarian aid to Myanmar's people and asking Myanmar's government to remove restrictions on international aid groups.

Democratic Sen. John Kerry said in a statement that the cyclone "could be remembered as the moment when the United States and the world came to the aid of the Burmese people and made it clear that while we loathe the junta that has isolated Burma from the world and oppressed its citizens, we find common cause with the people of Burma and we will be there by their side at this difficult time."

Associated Press writer Foster Klug contributed to this report.

Burma deports aid workers

BURMA has deported aid workers after declaring it is "not ready" for foreign search and rescue teams following a devastating cyclone.

In a statement in a state newspaper today, the foreign ministry said search and rescue team and media who arrived on Wednesday on a flight from Qatar were deported the same day.

"Currently Myanmar (Burma) has prioritised receiving emergency relief provisions and is making strenuous efforts to transport those provisions without delay by its own labours to the affected areas," it said.

"As such, Myanmar is not ready to receive search and rescue teams as well as media teams from foreign countries."


Crisis in Burma: A Constitution is More Than a Document

By Rene Wadlow

The tropical cyclone Nargris which struck the Burma Irrawaddy delta on May 3, and the incompetent military response for relief efforts, could be the equivalent of Katrina in New Orleans in showing the incoherence of Myanmar's military government and its disregard of the welfare of its people. The Irrawaddy delta is home for a quarter of country's population of 57 million. The delta is populated largely by the Burman ethnic group which gave its name to the country; about 40 per cent of the total population are ethnic minorities who live in higher areas along the frontiers with Thailand, China, India, and Bangladesh.

The destruction by the cyclone is symbolic of the destruction by the military-led government of the economy and social services. During the 1950s, Burma was considered by specialists as among the potential economic leaders of Asia. Today, after being in power since 1962, the military has gained for Burma a place on the UN list of the planet's poorest.

Prior to the cyclone, the government was planning to hold a referendum on a government-drafted constitution for the country. If all goes as in now planned, the referendum will be held on 10 May in most of the country and in the storm-ravaged areas on 24 May. Were people to vote freely, it is likely that the military constitution would be swept away. However, a free election is most unlikely. Few people understand the nearly 200-page constitution and commentary, and no effort has been made to explain its meaning. The country has been without a constitution since 1989, and one was drafted largely because the UN thinks that constitutions are necessary for the rule of law. However for a constitution to be more than an unread document, it must reflect the needs of the times.

As Thomas Jefferson wrote:
Some men look at constitutions with sanctimonious reverence and deem them like the ark of the covenant too sacred to be touched. They ascribe to the men of the preceding age a wisdom more than human and suppose what they did to be beyond amendment. I am certainly not an advocate of frequent and untried changes in laws and constitutions. But, I also know that laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As new discoveries are made, new truths disclosed, and manners and opinions change with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also and keep pace with the times.
The government of Myanmar (Burma) has invited voters to ratify a new constitution for the state on May 10, 2008. An earlier constitution had been abolished in 1988 when a partly renewed group of military officers pushed General Ne Win into retirement. General Ne Win had ruled Burma from 1958 to 1960 and then from 1962 to 1988 when a non-violent, democratic opposition came to the fore in a month of demonstrations, followed by the coming to power of a group of slightly younger military officers calling themselves the State Law and Order Restoration Council (Slorc) which had cracked down on the pro-democracy demonstrators.

There had been a first constitution drafted just prior to independence from the UK in 1947, largely influenced by English law and practice. It was a quasi-federal constitution with a good deal of authority given to the states where the national minority population live — about half of the population of Burma. Population statistics in Burma are rough approximations. This 1947 constitution was made largely non-operative by the insurgencies that broke out soon after independence led by militias belonging to national minorities fighting for the creation of independent states or greater autonomy within Burma. In addition, there was a strong insurgency of the Burmese Communist Party helped by the then new Communist government of China. In order to have a free hand to fight the insurgencies and to have direct power, the higher military took over in 1958 until 1960 and then from 1962 on.

By 1974 General Ne Win and his Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP) had been in power long enough that they felt that the country should have a constitution as most countries have constitutions. The 1974 constitution provided for a more centralized form of government, but there were seven states to represent seven major ethnic groups: Karen, Kachin, Kayah, Shan, Chin, Mon, and Arakanese. In addition there was a "heartland" of seven districts in which the Burman were in the majority and where real power lay. The constitution provoked no great changes in the arbitrary way in which Ne Win ruled, but the constitution did exist in case anyone asked on what basis the government was structured.

In 1988 with the new Slorc in power, in order to mark the shift in power, the 1974 constitution associated with Ne Win was abolished, and some talk of drafting a new constitution started. Some of the pro-democracy leaders of the 1988 demonstrations, fearing arrest by the military, left the capital Rangoon and went to Thailand or to the Thai-Burma frontier where they came into contact with the national minority insurgencies. Representatives of the pro-democracy groups along with the leaders of the ethnic minorities, some monks and especially students created an umbrella organization: the Democratic Alliance of Burma (DAB). The DAB sent representatives to Geneva to present their positions to the UN human rights bodies and to testify to abuses of human rights in Burma. As ideally human rights law is based on both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and on national constitutions which safeguard human rights, my discussions with these DAB representatives turned to a new constitution for Burma. As I am, somewhat, a specialist on federal forms of government, my discussions with the Burmese concerned what could be a federal constitution for a democratic Burma. The Burmese and the representatives of the ethnic minorities knew what they did not want — a centralized state. They had a less clear vision of what forms a federal alternative would take. There was a need to have a clear vision of what people wanted and then to discuss the structures that a government should take.

In 1990, I was going to Cambodia to help set up some child welfare and educational projects and had to spend some time in Bangkok. I suggested to the Myanmar Mission to the UN in Geneva that I could go from Bangkok to Rangoon and lead a three-day seminar for persons who had been elected to Parliament on possible federal structures for the country. The Parliament, in practice, was never called into existence as the Slorc had been defeated by the unexpected victory of the National League for Democracy (NLD) led by Aung San Suu Kyi.
The seminar I proposed would have been structured around three themes:

The Spirit of Federalism: Unity, Cooperation and Diversity.

The Structures of Federalism: The State, the Region, the Person.

The Tensions of Federalism: Flexibility in a time of rapid change: Economic challenges and political responses.
This would not have been a constitution-drafting exercise but an effort to clarify the aspirations of different groups and to see if there were structures which could facilitate such aspirations. The Ambassador replied "You may perhaps be aware that there have already existed two constitutions in the Union of Myanmar, and hence our constitutional scholars have had considerable experience in such matters. Moreover, we are at present in the process of scrutinizing the basic constitutional principles and experiences of other states in order to obtain a better perspective of the successes and shortcomings of such undertakings. But admittedly, it is the citizens of Myanmar, who must discuss and decide for themselves as to the form and content of the new constitution to be drawn up. There exist some 135 national races in our country, and thus the new constitution must necessarily encompass the views and aspirations of all citizens, for which purpose coordination will be made among political parties, Hiuttaw respresentatives (the military), representatives of national races and the people.

"Although we thank you for your interest and your kind offer to hold discussions on the matter, we feel that it would be best if such discussions be confined to the people who would be directly affected — the citizens of the Union of Myanmar."

A ‘national convention’ was hand-picked to write a constitution. In practice, it consulted no one. Members of the national convention were not allowed to discuss issues among themselves outside the rare periods in which the convention was in session. Members of the convention whose ideas were too independent were put in jail. Newspapers and media were not allowed to discuss issues of the convention. From 1991 to 2008 is a long time to draft a constitution. I do not want to say that it would have gone faster had the seminars I suggested been held, but 16 years of drafting is slow in any case, even with no debates.

The new constitution still calls for a centralized state which is basically unacceptable to the ethnic minorities. It gives a leading role and a form of veto to the military; it bans election to office of any Burmese married to a foreigner — a clause aimed at Aung San Suu Kyi whose late husband was an English specialist on Tibet and Burmese culture. Why the prohibition continues after the death of the foreign partner is not explained.

The May 10 referendum would be a comedy if so many Burmese were not suffering. After the September-October 2007 demonstrations, the 400,000 Buddhist monks will not be allowed to vote, or convicted criminals or the insane. It is likely that some ethnic minorities will be rounded up to vote on a constitution which they do not understand. There has been no public discussion of the structure and provisions of the constitution.

Constitutions have played little role in the way in which Burma has been governed. The 2008 Third constitution is likely to be no different. Ultimately there is a need to discuss the ways in which a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic society can be justly governed. Unfortunately, May 10 will not be a step in that direction.

For more information, see:

Burma: Love and Kindness Must Win Over Everything

Burma: A Growing History of Violence

Burma: Darkness at Midnight

Rene Wadlow is the Representative to the United Nations, Geneva of the Association of World Citizens and the editor of the journal of world politics:

U.N. says 1.5 million people affected by Myanmar storm

By Aung Hla Tun

YANGON (Reuters) - The United Nations estimated 1.5 million people have been "severely affected" by the cyclone that swept through Myanmar, as the United States expressed outrage with the country's junta over delays in allowing in aid.

In Myanmar, despairing survivors awaited emergency relief on Friday, a week after 100,000 people were feared killed by Cyclone Nargis as it roared across the farms and villages of the low-lying Irrawaddy delta region.

"We're outraged by the slowness of the response of the government of Burma to welcome and accept assistance," U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Zalmay Khalilzad.

"It's clear that the government's ability to deal with the situation, which is catastrophic, is limited," he told reporters on Thursday.

The U.N. food agency and Red Cross/Red Crescent said they had finally started flying in emergency relief supplies after foot-dragging by Myanmar's military rulers. The United States, however, was waiting for approval to start military flights.

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates told reporters Washington was "fully prepared to help and to help right away, and it would be a tragedy if these assets" were not used.

The Navy said four ships, including the destroyer USS Mustin and the three-vessel Essex Expeditionary Strike Force, were heading for Myanmar from the Gulf of Thailand after the Essex deployed helicopters to Thailand for aid operations.

Witnesses have seen little evidence of a relief effort in the delta that was swamped in Saturday's cyclone -- the worst since 1991, when 143,000 people were killed in neighboring Bangladesh.

Towns and hamlets in the Irrawaddy Delta were helping themselves in the absence of any outside aid.

"There are more than 1,000 people down there on the outskirts of Laputta," said one resident. "It's a refugee camp. Water is a big problem. So many people from here have made donations. They have given rice, vegetables and noodles."

Asked if survivors were angry at the regime, he said: "They need food and family. They don't need revolution."


Some critics accuse the junta of stalling because they do not want an influx of foreigners into the countryside during Saturday's referendum on the army-drafted constitution that looks set to cement the military's grip on power. The plebiscite has been postponed for two weeks in areas worst-hit by the storm.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he was seeking direct talks with the junta's senior general, Than Shwe, to persuade him to remove obstacles. A U.N. spokeswoman said Ban believed it might be "prudent" for the government to postpone the referendum.

U.N. humanitarian affairs chief John Holmes was asked by reporters if he suspected a link between the referendum and Myanmar's reluctance to grant visas to aid workers.

"The referendum may or may not be a complicating factor, but as I say, my focus is really on getting the aid to people as fast as possible," Holmes said.

Questioning the value of voicing outrage over the aid delays, Holmes said later that it was better to work with the government.

"It's not clear to me at this stage anyway that bludgeoning them over the head is going to make any difference or make it any better. We have to work with them," he told U.S. National Public Radio.

Washington was hoping to get approval to send in a plane with aid that is ready to fly. Approval for such a flight would be significant, given the huge distrust and acrimony between the former Burma's generals and Washington, which has imposed tough sanctions to try to end 46 years of military rule.

The storm pulverized the Irrawaddy delta with 120 miles

per hour winds followed by a 12-foot (3.7-metre) wave that leveled villages and caused most of the casualties and damage.

While Holmes said the United Nations estimated at least 1.5 million people were "severely affected," Britain's U.N. ambassador, John Sawers, said it may be in the millions.

Myanmar state television did not give an update on Thursday night of the official death toll, which stood at 22,980 with 42,119 missing as of Tuesday. Diplomats and disaster experts said the real figure is likely to be much higher.

Shari Villarosa, charge d'affaires of the U.S. embassy in Myanmar, said on Wednesday the death toll may exceed 100,000.

U.N. officials who had earlier complained the generals were putting up obstacles to an emergency airlift, said half a dozen cargo planes had been allowed to land at Yangon airport.


France has suggested invoking a U.N. "responsibility to protect" to deliver aid to Myanmar without government approval. But its bid to make the Security Council take a stand has been rebuffed by China, Vietnam, South Africa and Russia. Indonesia and China spoke against politicizing the issue.

"There is already a readiness on the part of Myanmar to open itself to assistance," Indonesian Ambassador Marty Natalegawa told reporters. "The last thing we would want is to give a political spin to the technical realities and the situation on the ground."

Sawers, the British envoy, suggested that Britain also had doubts about invoking the "responsibility to protect" idea.

"That (concept) relates to acts of genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and so forth, rather than responses to natural disasters," Sawers told reporters.

Thai Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej failed to reach Myanmar's generals on Thursday due to communications problems after U.S. President George W. Bush asked him to intervene over the aid delays, Thailand's government spokesman said.

"Some (aid) is getting through," World Vision Australia's chief executive officer Tim Costello told reporters in a conference call from Yangon. "But it's a trickle when it needs to be literally a flood."

(Additional reporting by Louis Charbonneau and Claudia Parsons at the United Nations; Kerstin Gehmlich in Berlin, Matthew Bigg in Atlanta; Nopporn Wong-Anan, Grant McCool and Darren Schuettler in Bangkok; Writing by Bill Tarrant; Editing by John Chalmers)

New constitution just a 'license to kill' for Myanmar regime - Feature

Mae Sot, Thailand - The military junta ruling Myanmar (Burma) has imposed a vacation ban for all officials, but not for the reason that every last person can be available to assist survivors of the recent cyclone that devastated the country. Instead, the officials have to remain available to organize this Saturday's referendum on the new constitution, with which the generals intend to cement their power.

"This clearly shows their priorities," said Bo Kyi who, as a political prisoner, spent more than seven years in a military-run torture camp before he fled across the border into Thailand.

"They won't allow their ploy to be spoiled even by tens of thousands of dead," he added.

According to the government, nearly 23,000 people were killed and as many as 42,000 are missing since Cyclone Nargis smashed into central Myanmar on May 2 and 3.

While bloated corpses still litter fields across the Irrawaddy river delta, the regime-controlled media continue to busily promote the referendum.

And while a million people in deep shock fight for their survival, government newspapers inform about upcoming election speeches by different ministers under the concept of a "flourishing discipline democracy."

If adopted, the new constitution will secure the military a staggering 25 per cent of parliamentary seats as well as key ministerial positions in the government.

Some opponents already have made acquaintance with the proclaimed "flourishing discipline."

Inhabitants of Yangon (Rangoon), the country's main port city and former capital, who dared to publicly wear "Vote No!" T-shirts prior to the cyclone were arrested.

Members of the oppositional National League for Democracy (NLD) were beaten in the streets.

"The junta wants to merely legitimize their regime with the constitution. They want a license to kill," asserted Bo Kyi, who founded a non-governmental organization, the Association for the Assistance of Political Prisoners (AAPP), to help incarcerated dissidents and their families.

He is convinced that the country's voters will reject the constitution, especially at a time when the regime has forsaken the people in their hour of greatest need.

On Thursday, hundreds of thousands were still awaiting help while international emergency relief volunteers were stuck in neighbouring countries because they couldn't obtain entry visas.

"We have received nothing so far," said Soe Win, a resident of Kawhmu township some 35 kilometres south of Yangon.

His sister and 7-year-old nephew were killed by a falling tree that was uprooted by the cyclone.

"Everybody here is deeply upset and we all certainly will vote 'no'," he said.

Meanwhile, those familiar with the regime's workings don't harbour any illusions about the referendum result that the ruling generals are likely to announce.

"The junta just cannot be trusted. They will never give up their sabotage [of democracy]," said NLD member Win Hlaing, 45, who in 1990 won a parliamentary seat during the country's last national election, which saw a landslide victory for the NLD.

The junta ignored the outcome and put opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest, where she remains till this day.

Win Hlaing himself also spent 10 years in prison before last year fleeing to Mae Sot, a little town on the Thailand side of the border.

Since then, the junta has trained the country to give frightened obedience.

Similar to the Stasi agents of former East Germany, the regime's henchmen have infiltrated everywhere and nothing goes unnoticed by them.

Associations, companies and even individual families are required to regularly delegate participants to official parades which tens of thousands of spectators are expected to cheer.

It is anticipated that regime supporters of the United Solidarity and Development Association (USDA) will be deployed during the referendum to "assist" voters in their decision-making.

USDA allegedly has 24 million active members, about half of the country's total population.

The regime reared its ugly head most recently in September last year when it ordered troops to open fire on tens of thousands of peaceful protesters and monks in Rangoon.

Official figures put the death toll at 31 people, but human rights activists believe that dozens more lost their lives.

The opposition is convinced that a new public uprising is only around the corner.

"Our next phase of struggle will begin after the referendum," said Win Hlaing. He claimed that the NLD maintains secret observers throughout the country to expose election fraud.

"The people are angry with the military. They only need one little spark to explode again," he added.

If that happens, said Bo Kyi, it would have to be the hour of the international community to get involved.

"The United Nations will have to support the will of Myanmar's people, not the will of the junta," he explained.

He rejected the idea of avoiding a confrontation in order to not jeopardize a dialogue with the paranoid generals.

"You may play the violin to a buffalo, but it won't listen," he said, citing a local proverb.

Earth Times

US caught between aid and politics over Myanmar disaster

WASHINGTON (AFP) - US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice insists aid to cyclone-ravaged Myanmar has nothing to do with politics but critics and some Asian diplomats wonder whether Washington is mixing the two.

The United States has already accorded three million dollars in aid and geared up for massive operations in Myanmar where up to 100,000 people were feared killed by Tropical Cyclone Nargis.

But the country's insular junta has refused to grant access and some critics say a tough US stance at the start might be partly to blame.

The full magnitude of the disaster was not yet known when First Lady Laura Bush held a news conference Monday to denounce Myanmar's military rulers.

Calling them "very inept," she slammed the military junta for failing to respond adequately to the disaster and to issue a timely warning to its citizens as well as for proceeding with a highly criticized constitutional referendum.

"When a country run by a despotic and isolationist regime is laid low by a massive natural disaster, the diplomatic thing to do is to respond with a show of compassion," said Dan Froomkin, the online "White House Watch" columnist for the Washington Post. "Not kick 'em when they're down."

She and President Bush were also criticized for imposing a condition that the junta first allow an American team into Myanmar to assess the scope of the devastation before relief aid could be provided.

"That the International Red Cross, the United Nations, the European Union and a number of highly competent relief agencies were already on the ground doing exactly that did not seem to matter," commented Richard Walden, President of Operation USA, an international relief group.

"Whether it's a hurricane or a cyclone, somehow one Bush or another flies too far above the clouds to feel the pain," he said on

Sensing controversy, the Bush administration seems to be backing off but is still insisting that its assessment team be allowed into Myanmar first.

The junta however has not issued visas to the team, currently in Bangkok, worried that any high profile participation could threaten its iron hand rule.

It is "suspicious of the US because of our vitriolic language toward the regime and our call, in effect, for regime change," said David Steinberg, an Asian expert at Washington-based Georgetown University.

The Americans have not been hesitant to use their considerable military and economic resources to help out enemies in times of distress.

When an earthquake flattened the ancient Iranian city of Bam more than four years ago, Washington swiftly provided aid and rescue teams. It also gave immense military support to Indonesia when it was struck by a deadly tsunami in 2004 despite sanctions over human rights issues.

The tone of the initial US response to the Myanmar disaster also surprised some Asian diplomats.

They also saw President Bush's signing Tuesday of legislation awarding a Congressional gold medal to Myanmar's democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi as untimely amid the devastation and suffering.

"He could have done it a bit later, perhaps on May 27," one Southeast Asian diplomat commented.

The date is the 18th anniversary of the 1990 elections won by Suu Kyi's party and also the date when the military is due to renew her house arrest.

"There is no doubt the junta is heartless but this is not the time to politicize the issue," another diplomat from the region said.

But Rice rejected any notion that politics was at play.

"What remains is for the Burmese (Myanmar) government to allow the international community to help its people," she told reporters.

"It should be a simple matter. It's not a matter of politics. It's a matter of a humanitarian crisis," Rice said. "This is the type of crisis that will only get worse."

Burma is legally obliged to allow international aid

By Peter Hulsroj

When natural disaster strikes governments are mostly overwhelmed. This was true even in the US with Hurricane Katrina and it is true today in Burma. Lots of assistance was given to New Orleans by foreign nations and aid organisations, and it was all accepted apart from a polemical offer of help from Cuba. Yet in Burma, as so many times before, we experience a totalitarian regime that dithers about receiving aid for its own perverse reasons. Well-meaning people around the globe are aghast, but almost all seem to think that it is the sovereign right of Burma to refuse aid. This is hogwash.

The law of human rights speaks clearly to this, when properly understood, and even if law will not on its own prevent the Burmese regime from brutalising its population by intransigence, law is part of the aid equation - important not in its own right but important in underwriting a moral imperative. Leaders must know that if they cannot take care of their populations on their own then there is no moral or legal choice, but to let others assist.

In very simple terms the International Bill of Rights, that is, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, mandates that governments ensure that the human beings entrusted to them will have adequate food, shelter and medical care, and that governments do so by deploying all means at their disposal.

When national means are inadequate, but adequate means are available internationally, it follows with inescapable logic that the government of a stricken nation is legally obliged to allow international aid.

If it does not, it is in breach of its human rights obligations.
This is true even for Burma, which remarkably did not ratify either of the two international covenants, because the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on its own leads to this result, as an expression of binding customary law.

At this time, neglecting to provide for a stricken population by refusing foreign aid is perhaps not an international crime, yet for the international community to realise that law speaks with a clear voice in defence of the defenceless in these cases is the first step towards an altered mindset and towards internationally criminalising such avoidable misery!

Peter Hulsroj,
Legal Adviser,
Vienna, Austria

Source: FT