If ever a country deserved better, it is Burma. A peaceful, predominantly Buddhist country, rich in natural resources and fertile land, Burma should be the economic engine of South East Asia. Instead, the country has suffered in the grips of a repressive military junta, the State Law and Order Restoration Concil (SLORC) for years. SLORC has held the elected leader of the country, Nobel Peace Prizewinner Aung San Suu Kyi (left), has been held under house arrest for more than a decade.
Last fall, the junta smashed monk-led street protests. Those protests were sparked by the soaring price of rice, but were popularly perceived as a challenge to the regime itself. An unknown number of monks and other civilians were killed, and many remain in detention.
Then came Cyclone Nargis with its 120 mile an hour winds.
On May 3, the cyclone swept through the Irrawaddy delta, a densely populated rice growing region, leaving death and destruction in its wake. Tens of thousands are dead. Survivors face poor sanitation, no shelter and a lack of drinking water. Outbreaks of malaria and dengue fever, as well as cholera and dysentery, are likely.
To top it off, the entire nation’s food security is now in jeopardy. The cyclone devastated area produces most of Burma’s rice and fish. Save the Children's Burma Representative Andrew Kirkwood has compared the scale of the disaster to the 2004 tsunami. The Food and Agriculture Organization today called for $10 million dollars of emergency assistance to farming and fishing communities. With climate change apparently well underway, we can expect more of these severe storms, and as always, it is the poorest who are most vulnerable.
Will help Reach Those in Need?
Astonishingly, in Burma, that vulnerability is being compounded by an irresponsible and unresponsive government. The SLORC government is preventing foreign aid workers from reaching those in jeopardy. Today, the United Nations announced that it is suspending relief efforts after SLORC seized U.N. rice stores and equipment. According to the World Food Program, the junta seized all of the food aid that the agency had managed to get into Burma.
Watching this humanitarian disaster unfold, I can’t help thinking that we are seeing the dark side of sovereignty. Is the international community really powerless to prevent the junta from refusing to admit foreign aid workers, and thwarting international relief efforts? The survivors of this disaster deserve better. France apparently agrees. According to the Daily Mail, France proposed invoking Security Council Resolution 1674, which articulates an international "responsibility to protect," to bypass the junta and deliver aid directly to those in need.
P.S.: By the way, I deliberately choose to call the country Burma, not Myanmar, because the name-change was a SLORC project, and has not been recognized by the opposition (the legally-elected government.) The UN may use Myanmar, but it will be Burma to me until the democratic opposition says otherwise.