Myanmar’s ill wind

Myanmar‘s ill wind


THE toll of a cyclone like Nargis is measured not in the dead — though they may number in the tens of thousands — but the dying, in their hundreds of thousands. After the devastation of the storm itself comes the more insidious and much further-reaching effects of displacement, disease, malnutrition and exposure. Shelter is gone. Food and essential supplies are gone. Injuries and debilitation are rife. Ten days since the storm lashed the Irrawaddy delta, literally changing the face of Myanmar, it seems that country will never be the same again. If, however, the wrenching transformations wrought by the cyclone also include the decline and fall of the military regime that has astounded the world with its deadly determination to keep out “foreign influence”, perhaps the proverbial “winds of change” that have for so long eluded Myanmar took a very literal expression that fateful May 3.


The United Nations recognises the notion of “a responsibility to protect”, the invocation of which some members, most notably France, are urging. But this is a provision for events of genocide and war, not natural catastrophe. Quite simply, international conventions have never conceived of a situation where a national administration would rather let its citizens perish than allow help to reach them from other than officially sanctioned quarters. Myanmar’s Senior General Than Shwe’s continuing refusal even to receive word from UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon indicates that the junta seems hell-bent on drawing a line and making a stand, digging in its heels in obdurate refusal to capitulate to the humanitarian agencies that are waiting to alleviate the suffering of the 1.5 million people directly affected by the cyclone and its aftermath.
There are stories of heroic determination and resilience to be told in this tragedy, among the cyclone’s survivors as much as those few foreign aid workers — Malaysians included among the teams from Myanmar’s Asean neighbours — who have accessed the disaster zones. But they are subsumed beneath the over-arching saga of stubborn paranoia suffusing the response of their government, apparently still more concerned with garnering popular approval for its farcical “referendum” on the interminable “seven-step charter” touted as an alternative to the democratic processes that would have otherwise ousted the junta 20 years ago. Perhaps the cyclone might have succeeded where democracy, compassion and simple common sense have failed, in restoring a sense of reality to a regime where surrealism bizarrely reigns. But the generals are steadfast in denial.





KOH LAY CHIN: When politicking takes precedence, the poor suffer



Aid being delivered in Twantey, near Yangon. Myanmar's military regime has been criticised by foreign governments for allowing only a trickle of much-needed foreign aid to enter the country since the cyclone Nargis struck on May 3. - AFP picture

Aid being delivered in Twantey, near Yangon. Myanmar’s military regime has been criticised by foreign governments for allowing only a trickle of much-needed foreign aid to enter the country since the cyclone Nargis struck on May 3. — AFP picture


YOU could sense the tension in the air, but the kids didn’t care. They were just elated that the Hare Krishnas had arrived with their huge pots of steaming rice and vegetable dhal. They sang songs, lightening the mood. This was Trincomalee, Sri Lanka, in 2005, more than a week after the tsunami struck. Spending several hours in a refugee camp is already a heart-wrenching experience, but there was an added crunch as this particular camp was located in a Tamil Tiger stronghold.


There were the Sri Lankan military men keeping watch on one side, and the Tamil Tiger rebels on the other. They were both eyeballing each other like hawks. The rebels said they were fed up with what they said was government propaganda — which accused the Tigers of sabotaging aid work for the victims. The soldiers scoffed at this, retorting that it was they who were being intimidated and harassed by the rebels, therefore hampering their own relief efforts in LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam), areas. Meanwhile the casualties, the poor and hungry, continued to suffer.
With the huge disasters that have hit our neck of the woods in recent memory, analysts have often talked about the subject of disaster diplomacy when it comes to conflict-ridden zones such as Sri Lanka or Aceh. The possibility of disaster diplomacy is apparent when we see how the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) and the Indonesian government pulled together to strike a peace deal after the massive devastation caused by the tsunami. Both sides realised that with the enormity of the disaster, the suffering of the people was too much to bear, and by July 16, 2005, they announced that the 30-year insurgency had ended.

Obviously, measures of success when it comes to conflict zones can be nebulous or fleeting. Just look at the Sri Lankan example, where the government has pulled out of the ceasefire agreement just this January. Bitter hostilities on both sides just seem too entrenched.

Another example of the possibilities of disaster diplomacy would be the Kashmir quake (also in 2005). It was indeed a horrific disaster, affecting eight million people across the contentious Line of Control, but it also brought about a new political landscape where Pakistan and India could work closer together. The thawing of relations between the two countries are certainly due to other factors, not least being increased political restraint and dialogue, but the flurry of relief work that both had to co-ordinate together did play a part.


Indeed, 2005 was one year Mother Nature lost her cool spectacularly. This year, it is happening again. Myanmar is reeling from the wrath of Cyclone Nargis, and the casualty toll is also still being counted in China. Is there a chance for disaster diplomacy in Myanmar? Wait a minute, who are they actually fighting? Although it is not a fight physical in nature, the military government is acting like they are on the defensive. Their handling of the disaster has been severely criticised. Who in their right mind denies offerings of aid for their suffering citizens even as they are barely able to help their own?
Thumbing their noses at countries is one thing, but being suspicious of relief agencies and NGOs is perplexing, to say the least. When a country still ponders visa applications for the UN World Food Programme and Doctors Without Borders more than a week after the disaster, that is surely a sign of gross insecurity and paranoia. That the junta insisted on holding a referendum to solidify their power in the midst of all this distress is also indicative. It is warped political egotism of the highest order, and it isn’t pretty. And once again, when Myanmar is a topic, sooner or later Asean inevitably becomes a sub-topic.

Like it or not, the more Charlie misbehaves, the more Charlie’s sisters and brothers get the evil eye around the neighbourhood. But that is another story.

The politics of disasters and crises show what governments and their rivals can or won’t do when windows of opportunities open up, no matter how dire the catastrophe. When political agency fails to consider what is most important — the people — that is when a tragedy truly becomes tragic. And although we have seen how it takes a complete disaster for there to be some headway in peace talks, a disaster, more often than not, just further illustrates what already exists. The mettle of political players, neighbours and rivals, and the communications among them. Can they or can they not remember what matters most?

History tells us though, that the peace deal struck between GAM and the Indonesian government was a rarity, and not the norm. I remember feeling helpless seeing the aid for the Sri Lankan refugee camp being hoarded and argued over by the two opposing sides. When politicking takes precedence, the poor and hungry continue to suffer.

And I was just as elated as the kids when the Hare Krishnas came. It was a welcome respite.










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