(11:15AM EST – promoted by Nightprowlkitty)
YANGON (AFP) – Myanmar said Friday it was not ready to let in foreign aid workers, rejecting international pressure to allow experts into the isolated nation where disease and starvation are stalking cyclone survivors.
One week after the devastating storm killed tens of thousands, Myanmar’s ruling generals — deeply suspicious of the outside world — said the country needed outside aid for those still alive, but would deliver it themselves.
The foreign ministry announcement came as a top UN official warned time was running out to move in disaster experts and supplies to prevent diseases that could claim even more victims.
Instead, the ministry said some relief workers who arrived on an aid flight from Qatar on Wednesday had been deported.
Al Jazeera has an exemplary in-depth analysis of this tragedy, including an extended round table featuring UN Humanitarian Chief John Holmes, Bo Hla Tint, spokesperson for the Burmese Government in Exile and Marie Lall of the Asia Programme at Chatham House:
As outrageous as this latest move by the junta is, it’s important to know why they are doing what they are doing to see if any pressure can be put on them to change their stance and let aid workers in to help the situation on the ground.
The Associated Press gives some background on the paranoia driving these recent decisions:
“The military regime is extraordinarily xenophobic. They are afraid of everything,” said Sean Turnell, a Myanmar expert at Australia’s Macquarie University.
Among the junta’s fears are internal uprisings, a U.S. invasion, globalization and its capacity to dilute traditional Burmese culture. In the aftermath of Saturday’s cyclone, the junta appears to be afraid of losing face with its people.
“If they can’t handle the situation and they let Westerners come in with helicopters, this will demonstrate to their own people the shortcomings of the military,” Turnell said. “They are more concerned with control and maintaining an omniscience in front of their people than saving lives.”
And this is coupled with a fear that Western governments will use this human tragedy as a reason to overthrow the junta:
“They’re afraid that if foreign soldiers come in they are the spearhead to overthrow the government,” said Josef Silverstein, a retired Rutgers University professor who studied Myanmar for more than a half century.
From the junta’s perspective: “Aid workers could be carrying weapons to give to the people, they could give them ideas of how to overthrow the government.”
The junta has long mistrusted the West because of more than a century of British colonial rule that ended in 1948. A parliamentary democracy survived until the ruthless dictator Gen. Ne Win seized power in a 1962 coup. During his 26-year rule, Ne Win’s regime curtailed human rights and political opposition and closed the country off to outsiders, earning Burma, as it was then known, the nickname the “Hermit Kingdom.”
The US’s invasion of Iraq has only served to heighten these fears:
The U.S. invasions of Iraq in 1991 and in 2003 reportedly spread panic among the junta and high hopes among the people.
Some analysts believe the junta’s abrupt decision in 2005 to relocate the country’s capital from Yangon to the remote city of Naypyitaw, which it carved out of dense jungle, was driven by fears of a U.S. invasion.
If a government goes through the time, effort and energy of moving a country’s capital that pretty much shows how afraid they are of being overthrown by a foreign military.
The tragedy here is that these fears are costing the lives of people on the ground, as the risk of disease becomes less and less preventable.
What can be done? There isn’t a possibility of Geraldo going in country, holding a small baby up to the camera and crying to the world to save these children. Any foreign presence makes these folks paranoid to the point where they would rather have millions of people die rather than accept UN aid workers into their country.
The options that remain are:
1. Let the current state of affairs stand. This means a certain death sentence for thousands of people, especially for small children and babies, as the local population dies slowly and painfully due to lack of food, safe drinking water and disease.
2. Air drop supplies over affected areas. These air drops are spotty at best and have no guarantee of reaching the folks in need. Also, there is the question of violating Burma’s airspace, which will only ratchet up the junta’s paranoia even further.
3. Take up France’s proposal to pass a UN resolution under its “responsibility to protect”. If this can even get passed at the UN – and given China’s support of the military junta that’s not a sure thing – this means the world community thumbing its nose at the junta and, in their eyes, moving full speed ahead with an invasion. Don’t expect the junta to take that one lying down, and if they vent their frustration on anyone chances are it will be the same folks all of these countries are moving in to try to save.
4. Unilateral action by the US and other countries. This would mean a consortium of nations – or even one big one like the US – thumbing their nose at the UN and just delivering aid directly to the citizens of Burma. This is frought with all of the problems outlined in the previous option, with the added bonus of alienating Burma’s closest neighbors and escalating a conflict more likely than not between China and any nations who take such unilateral action.
And while the world contemplates options that range from bad to worse, people die. Children starve. And soon disease will have a foothold, entrenching more suffering and death.
I don’t envy the folks having to make these decisions right now. At this point there are literally no good options, and the decisions will have to be based on choosing the action that will do the least amount of harm.
Please keep the people of Burma, and those individuals who hold their lives in their hands, in your thoughts, prayers and meditations.
UPDATE The Chinese government’s official news agency, Xinhua, has broken trend with international headlines and decided to focus on the military junta’s constitutional referendum vote. NOTE: if this was one’s sole source of information, one would be under the misimpression that there is nothing amiss in Myanmar right now:
YANGON, May 9 (Xinhua) — A nationwide referendum on a draft constitution will be held in Myanmar on Saturday as scheduled, with people across the country set to go to poll, except those residing in the declared natural-disaster-hit regions.
As 40 townships in Yangon division and 7 in the southwestern Ayeyawaddy division are under declared natural-disaster-hit regions status, ballot casting in these areas is postponed to a fortnight later on May 24.
According to official estimation, there is a total population of 57 million in the whole of Myanmar with up-to-age population, or eligible voters, accounting for about 27 million.
Of the country’s 57 million population, Yangon represents 7 million, while Ayeyawaddy 6 million.
According to the constitutional referendum law, it allows free and secret casting of votes on the draft constitution and open counting of the votes to ensure the referendum be free and fair.
The polling booths are set to close at 4 p.m. (local time), after which ballot counting will be done.
According to the draft constitution, the constitution draft can be ratified with the majority votes-in-favor out of the votes cast by over 50 percent of eligible voters.
The 194-page 15-chapter 2008 Republic of Union of Myanmar Constitution was drafted by the 54-member State Constitution Drafting Commission in accordance with the detailed basic principles laid down by the National Convention.
The National Convention originally started in 1993 but first adjourned for eight years from April 1, 1996 to May 16, 2004, and formally resumed on May 17, 2004.
The referendum on the new constitution draft constitutes part of the military government’s seven-step roadmap announced in 2003.The next step is to hold a multi-party democracy general election in 2010 to produce parliament representatives to hand over power to a democratically elected civil government.
Meanwhile, relief and resettlement work is underway in cyclone-hit areas and international relief aid is also coming in.