Humanitarian Intervention Needed
The Irrawaddy, EDITORIAL, May 8, 2008
An Open letter to ASEAN
Rangoon, Burma -- As a major humanitarian crisis in Burma unfolds and the death tool reaches 100,000, it is becoming increasingly clear that the Burmese military government is not doing enough to save lives.
This is a regime with a solid a reputation for deception and suppression of the truth. However, the reality of the cyclone's devastation and the junta's fatal intransigence and stubbornness cannot be swept under the carpet.
The world, again, feels sympathy and is ready to offer aid packages to Burma. The military regime's slow response to the disaster and the reluctance to allow relief to disaster zones has been a disgrace.
The junta's troops and members of the servile Union Solidarity and Development Association—who were all visibly active in attacking Buddhist monks and activists during the September uprising—are now conspicuously absent in the battered flooded streets of Rangoon.
Meanwhile, state-run media runs repeated footage of well-groomed generals and officers handing boxes of food and water to humble recipients.
This is a crisis. However, it is also a great opportunity for the regime to embrace the international community and cooperate with the rest of the world to help the cyclone victims, rebuild their communities and, ultimately, save lives.
So far, the signs are not encouraging. Though the Burmese leaders have officially asked for assistance, aid agencies have made it clear that supplies are being prevented from getting through. Six days after the cyclone, the World Food Programme could only confirm nine tonnes of food delivered to the needy; another 124 tonnes of rice, beans and high-energy biscuits remain sitting at Rangoon Airport or in transit.
UN officials, ambassadors and foreign diplomats have been denied or are still waiting for visas to enter Burma.
Until yesterday, a UN "disaster assessment" team and a group of experts were still waiting in Bangkok for clearance to travel to Burma, according to Rashid Khalikov, director of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
US President George W Bush and his wife, both staunch supporter of Burma's democracy movement, offered their country's help.
What a perfect opportunity for the Burmese regime to start working with its critics.
On Tuesday, Bush again reached out to the urged the military junta. "Let the United States come to help you, help the people," he said. "Our hearts go out to the people of Burma. We want to help them deal with this terrible disaster.
"We're prepared to move US Navy assets to help find those who've lost their lives," he said, but added that in order to do so, "the military junta must allow our disaster assessment teams into the country."
The US also announced it has increased its financial contribution to $3.25 million and eased some of the economic sanctions on Burma in order to facilitate aid to the cyclone victims.
A Pentagon spokesperson confirmed the US Navy has three ships in the Gulf of Thailand, including the USS Essex, which is carrying 1,800 marines, 23 helicopters and five amphibious landing craft.
"The military has vast resources and experience in dealing with this type of situation," Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell told reporters.
"And we stand ready to provide that expertise and those resources to the Burmese people, hopefully, when their government sees fit to ask us to provide them."
It is the high time the regime in Burma accepted such offers to help save lives and rebuild communities hit by the cyclone.
On Wednesday, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said the United Nations should invoke its "responsibility to protect" civilians as the basis for a resolution to force the delivery of aid to Burma, even if has to do it over the objections of the military government.
Some senior UN officials and humanitarian officers including John Holmes, head of the humanitarian section at the UN, feared that this would lead to confrontation. He said that negotiations are still going on with Burmese officials and making some progress.
Unfortunately, the victims of the cyclone cannot wait while diplomats sit around tables and chit-chat. People are dying.
The military leaders cannot pretend they are capable of dealing with the disaster themselves. To do so, in fact, constitutes a crime of negligence against the victims of the cyclone.
To date, the Burmese military government has failed miserably. It is incapable of mounting a relief effort of this scale.
This has nothing to do with sovereignty and national pride. When the deadly tsunami struck in December 2004, international aid and US naval assistance were warmly welcomed by Indonesia.
We, the people of Burma, request the Burmese government to accept the offers from the US and the UN.
This is a win-win situation for the junta. It can use the disaster as a springboard to rebuild its relationship with the West.
However, if the regime continues refusing to cooperate and hampering the international aid effort, then forceful humanitarian intervention must be considered—not only to save the victims of Cyclone Nargis, but to help alleviate the suffering the people of Burma have endured under this repressive regime for too long.