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Edge of Disaster

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Thousands Continue to Suffer as Burma Tragedy Slips From the Headlines

June 30th 2008

Disaster - Burma Food Line
Burma Victims in Food Line

Almost two months after Cyclone Nargis ripped through Burma’s Irrawaddy Delta region, leaving tens of thousands of people dead or homeless, thousands continue to suffer with little or no relief.

Burma’s military regime followed its initial decision to restrict and obstruct the delivery of aid with new regulations which serve only to further impede humanitarian efforts.

Only 1.3 million of the estimated 2.4 million people affected by the cyclone have been reached by international aid agencies, and only a few hundred foreign aid experts have been allowed into the country – and even fewer into the worst-affected areas.

For a few weeks, the crisis in Burma dominated the headlines. For a short time, the US, Great Britain, and France had naval vessels anchored off Burma’s coast, poised to go in with aid supplies. The talk was of whether the UN’s much-trumpeted "Responsibility to Protect" principle could be exercised. For a brief moment, the idea of military intervention on humanitarian grounds looked – for the first time – like a possibility. The British Government said no option was off the table, and the French appeared to be leading the charge.

But then the moment passed and the world moved on. The ships sailed away, complete with their cargo of aid undelivered, and Burma fell off the news agenda. The corpses, however, of people and animals – killed either by the cyclone or as a result of the regime’s inaction – continue to litter the streets and pollute the waters.

The cyclone victims have not gone completely unhelped. Some international aid is now, belatedly, tricking through, and the Burmese people themselves have organised a relief effort. Buddhist monks, Christian clergy, celebrities, and businessmen within Burma pulled together, and churches, monasteries, and schools provided shelter and food. In the words of one church leader, nothing, not even the regime’s obstruction, "deterred them from the sacred duty of saving lives." Churches and monasteries, he described, were turned into refugee camps. "With death and mayhem threatening them in their villages, thousands took refuge in sacred spaces. Even before the government could move in, or the do-gooders and NGOs could move in, spontaneous charity sprang forth with Buddhists feeding Christians and Christians feeding the Buddhists. Nargis broke many things in an evil way. Goodness broke all parochial borders that fateful night when death danced arrogantly across wounding a nation."

Local government authorities, however, did little. In the few villages where the regime made a show of assistance, the supplies were paltry. One village in Rangoon Division received aid from the junta three times in the three weeks following the cyclone. On each occasion, according to eye-witnesses, every family received six cups of wet, rotten rice. The first distribution also included one potato per family. The second distribution resulted in half the families in the village receiving a packet of noodles. On the third occasion, a few fortunate families were given one egg, each, and a tin bowl. They have yet to receive clean drinking water.

The regime’s failure to clean up decomposing bodies has resulted in a chronic deterioration in health and the spread of disease. The price of fish has plummeted, because people are avoiding eating fish that are believed to have been feeding on floating corpses. The costs of pork and chicken, meanwhile, have soared. The police, meanwhile, are reportedly stealing valuables from the dead bodies they find – and the regime has arrested and beaten up Burmese people attempting to help the cyclone victims. The comedian Zargana is now in jail, for criticising the regime’s failure to help its people.

On the political front, the regime is more entrenched than ever. Burma’s democracy leader, Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, marked her 63rd birthday on 19 June – and is now in her 13th year of house arrest. The regime declared that she was "a danger to the state" who deserves to be punished with "flogging… as in the case of naughty children." It is difficult to imagine how much worse the behaviour of the junta in Burma can get.

On Aung San Suu Kyi’s birthday, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 1820 on Women in Armed Conflicts. This follows Resolution 1325 in 2000. According to the Global Justice Center, Burma is clearly violating these resolutions – and is also in breach of the Geneva Conventions, the Genocide Convention, and the Rome Statute. The European Parliament has already called for a case against Burma’s Generals to be referred to the International Criminal Court, on charges of crimes against humanity. If the situation in Burma does not change, pressure for such a course of action is only likely to mount.

As the world focuses now on the crisis in Zimbabwe, the parallels between Robert Mugabe’s reign of terror in that failed state and the disaster unfolding in Burma are stark. Both countries, former British colonies, were once the most prosperous in their regions – Zimbabwe, the "bread basket" of Africa and Burma, the "rice bowl" of Asia. Both are now ruled by paranoid tyrants who have ruined their economies and terrorised their people. In both countries, there is a legitimate democratic opposition that has won elections but been denied their rightful place in government. The rulers of both nations remain in power illegitimately, having stolen their elections through intimidation, harassment, and rigging – or simply by ignoring the real result. And in both countries, the regimes are guilty of the same sad litany of human rights violations: torture, rape and murder, and the refusal to allow international aid organisations to help their people. And yet, so far in both countries the world’s politicians and media watch, report, and condemn – and then move on.

Benedict Rogers is the author of A Land Without Evil: Stopping the Genocide of Burma's Karen People (Monarch, 2004), and has visited Burma and its borderlands more than 20 times. He also serves as Deputy Chairman of the UK Conservative Party's Human Rights Commission.


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