Sunday, 18 May 2008

Saving Burma


May 16, 2008 (Time) - There is only one major road leading to Naypyidaw. Nearly three years ago, when Burma's new capital was carved out of scrubland, the country's ruling military junta gave no reason for its sudden abandonment of the bustling city of Rangoon. Then, shortly after thousands of civil servants were forced to move to an isolated construction site in the middle of nowhere, a secret government document leaked to local journalists. Junta leader Than Shwe outlined his fears of an invasion by the U.S. and lauded Naypyidaw's superior defensive position compared to the former capital: mountains on one flank, distance from the sea and limited road access. The only vulnerability to this bunker city was from the air. But even here, Naypyidaw has been blessed. When Cyclone Nargis devastated Rangoon and the nearby Irrawaddy river delta on May 2 and 3, killing perhaps 100,000 people and leaving as many as 2 million others fighting for their lives, the new capital escaped unscathed. (Jeg's: because it's got a tree curtain to protect the city/town)

Before Nargis struck Burma, also known as Myanmar, no one outside the paranoid clique of Burmese generals imagined that foreign agents would be attacking anytime soon. But as the junta blocked foreign aid for cyclone victims and provided little relief of its own, some outside Burma considered a radical solution: a unilateral intervention to save Burma's beleaguered citizens. "I want to register my deep concern and immense frustration at the unacceptably slow response to this grave humanitarian crisis," said U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon. French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner referred to the U.N.'s "responsibility to protect" and hinted that international action should be taken to ensure that relief reached those who needed it. David Cameron, the leader of Britain's opposition Conservatives, called any further foot-dragging by the Burmese leadership "a crime against humanity."

Cyclone Nargis can't be blamed on Burma's leaders. But their inaction has indeed been murderous. A week and a half after the storm inundated the Irrawaddy delta with a 12-foot-high tidal surge, flattening countless homes, the junta was still blocking much of the aid proffered by foreign nations. Although three U.S. military cargo planes were allowed to offload relief supplies in Rangoon, the World Food Program estimates that the amount of aid reaching storm victims is just a fraction of what's needed. Hundreds of international disaster experts are still awaiting visas to enter the country. Meanwhile, the junta's own relief efforts are painfully inadequate, with some army trucks delivering only rotting rice. Those who received the spoiled food are the lucky ones. In village after remote village that I visited in the flooded delta, no government officials had come to assess the damage, much less bring desperately needed food, water or shelter. Blackened, bloated corpses floated in rivers, the putrid smell of rotting flesh permeating the air. Yet few people seemed to hold any expectations that their leaders would help anytime soon. It is a remarkable accomplishment by the junta to have set the bar for competence so low that resignation reigns as the prospect of slow starvation mounts.

Ruling by Intimidation
For years, Burma's ruling military has filled its state-run media with rants against the West. Even after the storm, the government's mouthpiece, the New Light of Myanmar newspaper, demanded vigilance from the Burmese against "foreign nations interfering in internal affairs of the state" and "stooges holding negative views."

Fear pervades Burma. San San Khing, a rice farmer from Kaw Hmu township, told me how the torrent of water stole away her 1-year-old daughter. The mother managed to hold on to her 5-year-old son, but by the time the tidal surge receded 12 hours later, his body was lifeless. Sitting in a refugee camp not far from her destroyed home, though, San San Khing showed little despair. Twice, her eyes welled up, but she blinked back her tears. Her children were gone. She had no money or food. Yet the terror of talking to a foreign journalist seemed to trump any grief. Burma's leaders, backed by a 450,000-strong military, could do terrible things to her for speaking out.

I had gotten a glimpse of the military's power just 20 minutes before meeting San San Khing, when I was stopped at one of several checkpoints designed to keep out foreign journalists and aid workers without proper government permits. A polite immigration officer took down my passport details, as well as the name and address of my local driver. His colleague told me that the cyclone had blown down his house. Their demeanor was apologetic - as if they were embarrassed to follow orders that kept their wounded country closed. Then an army jeep screeched up to the checkpoint. A major jumped out, screaming at the two guards. Apparently some foreign aid workers had slipped past the checkpoint. How could the officers have let that happen? The major turned to my driver and continued to rant: How could he bring foreigners to this disaster area? Doing so showed his complete abdication of patriotic duty. The major warned that he would be reporting my driver's serious violation back to military headquarters. The clampdown was even more chilling near the riverside town of Laputta, where soldiers told villagers that any foreigners seen wandering around after dark would be shot, according to an aid agency operating locally.

In Burma today, the overwhelming sense is that the regime is more concerned with keeping foreigners out than allowing aid in. But unless international relief arrives quickly, the death toll of Cyclone Nargis will skyrocket. Already, disease is beginning to stalk makeshift refugee camps set up in monasteries and schools. In Laputta, 58 refugee camps have been set up for tens of thousands of dazed villagers who have nowhere else to go; the local hospital reports that one-quarter of new patients have diarrhea, a potential harbinger of killer epidemics. A Rangoon doctor says his hospital has run out of fully trained medical staff and is now sending interns to the disaster scene. International health officials warn that as many people could perish in the aftermath of the storm as from the cyclone itself. "I've had long experience of emergencies and I've never seen anything like this," says Julio Sosa Calo, head of mission in Laputta for the German relief group Malteser International. "What we're doing now is too little compared to the need." To make matters worse, an International Red Cross ship laden with aid, the first to be allowed into Burma, sank when it hit a submerged tree in the Irrawaddy delta. And by the middle of this month, seasonal monsoons are expected to further inundate the region. What will happen then to those hundreds of thousands of people with no shelter? "We're in 2008, not 1908," says Jan Egeland, the U.N.'s former emergency-relief coordinator. "If we let [the junta] get away with murder, we may set a very dangerous precedent."

Calls for Change
For its part, an alliance of political activists, students and Buddhist monks believes that the world can't wait. "We urge the U.N. and foreign governments to intervene in Burma immediately to provide assistance directly to the people of Burma without waiting for the permission of the military junta," the underground group, based in Rangoon, pleaded in a public statement. "Just come now." When I floated the idea of unilateral intervention with a democracy activist in Rangoon, he brightened up. "People would be so happy if they got foreign food from the sky," he said. Then, he whispered to me that Than Shwe's compound in Naypyidaw is now visible on Google Earth, in case I wanted to pass on a helpful tip to the U.S. Pacific Command. But as tempting as it might sound to a Burmese opposition figure to airdrop high-energy biscuits over refugee camps - or lob a missile at junta central in the new capital - military action would be a risky and costly proposition. The French Foreign Ministry quickly backtracked from Kouchner's original remarks.

So what's Plan B? Some hope that China, whose investment in Burma helps prop up the junta, could pressure the generals to allow in more aid. (After an earthquake struck the central Chinese province of Sichuan on May 12, killing and injuring tens of thousands, China sent out relief teams immediately and said it would accept foreign aid.) But even if China is willing to speak out, it's hard to know just how much influence it would have on Burma's top brass. The extent of the regime's disconnect with reality struck me as I drove the broad, empty avenues of Naypyidaw. This is a country where roughly one-third of children were malnourished even before Nargis. Yet the generals saw no problem with spending tens of millions of dollars constructing a massive new capital. But even there, the disregard for citizens is matched only by the junta's pursuit of personal gratification; to wit: the generals have signed off on three golf courses, immaculately mowed stretches of green where top commanders can indulge in their favorite pastime.

The junta's disregard for its citizens proved itself again on May 10, when the government decided to continue with a constitutional referendum that international observers say is designed to cement its hold on power. Although the sham plebiscite was postponed for two weeks in some of the worst storm-affected areas, other devastated regions were forced to hold the vote. Thousands of soldiers were mobilized to guard polling stations; hundreds of trucks mounted with loudspeakers fanned the nation, urging citizens to vote. Critics wondered how many lives might have been saved if some of those resources had been redeployed instead to the cyclone-relief effort. "People expect so little from the government," says one local journalist, who declined to be identified for fear of repercussions. "If the military had given food quickly, then people would be so grateful. It doesn't take much to make them happy."

Local opposition groups and Burmese in exile are now wondering whether disgust with the junta's disaster response could lead to a coup by younger, reformist officers. One source at the Rangoon airport described how rank-and-file soldiers were exhausted from unloading relief supplies. Officers, he says, are angry at the lack of planning by their superiors. But it's far from certain whether such frustration will turn into a groundswell against the junta. Similar hopes of reform surfaced during pro-democracy demonstrations last September, only to be dashed when soldiers gunned down dozens of innocent protestors. Thousands of monks, who had led the peaceful rallies, were arrested. Hundreds of political activists remain in jail. A cowed silence descended over Burma.

Perhaps this time will be different. The Irrawaddy delta is Burma's rice bowl. Not only was nearly all of this season's crop destroyed by Nargis, but most farmers won't be able to plant the next batch of seedlings because of salt-water inundation. Future shortages could spell dissent: at least five protest movements in Burma's recent history happened in the months when grain prices were at their highest. In a startling indication of dissatisfaction, an official counting referendum votes in Rakhine state told a Rangoon journalist that in 15 townships, the "no" vote ranged from 56% to 98%. (In Burma, it is unlikely that official results will reflect such inconvenient public sentiment.)

State of Fear
The army has ruled burma with an iron grip for 46 years. The opposition has been so beaten down that it may not have the organizational power to challenge the generals. And the discussion by those in faraway lands over the possibility of an intervention may only further entrench the generals. "This public discussion of unauthorized landings, and even a possible invasion of Burma," says a Burma military expert, "simply adds to the regime's paranoia and makes it even more suspicious of the long-term intentions of foreign governments offering assistance."

While the world debates what to do, the people of the delta wait. They are in no condition to foment revolution. In one village that no government representative had yet visited, I met a teacher who could speak a little English. He showed me the rubble of his destroyed schoolhouse. Only two things had been salvaged from the building: a small globe used for geography lessons and a framed photograph of junta leader Than Shwe, which normally hung at the front of the classroom. I asked if the 75-year-old strongman was a good person. The teacher laughed: "No, very bad." So why had he saved the picture? The teacher struggled for the right English word. "Scared," he said. Then he brought his wrists together to mime handcuffs.

As I walked back to my boat, the teacher asked where I came from. He inquired whether in the U.S. people can "say government bad." I said, Yes, we can. The teacher looked at me and shook his head. Then he pointed at the waterlogged earth and slashed a finger across his neck. View this article on