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Burma out of sight but not out of mind

Saturday, June 7, 2008

The following article appeared in the 29th May 2008 edition of the Methodist Recorder.

 

Burma faces its biggest humanitarian crisis since the tsunami in 2004, with thousands homeless and at risk of disease. On the 2nd May the category 3 cyclone Nargis hit the Irrawaddy delta region of Burma. We do not know the number of dead or missing; state media reported 34,273 dead, 1,403 injured and 27,836 missing. However, the United Nations estimate is significantly higher, perhaps 217,000 dead or missing. Following the initial devastation of the cyclone, the priority now is to minimise the spread of disease.

The UK’s main concern has been the delivery of clean drinking water, food, shelter and medicine. As the Minister responsible for the UK’s relationship with Burma, I have been working with countries around the world to get the badly needed relief supplies to the Burmese people. But it soon became apparent that the Burmese military regime was not going to accept the aid freely offered by the international community. They insisted they could cope. Slowly growing international pressure forced the regime to allow aid into the country.

But whilst the regime eventually began to accept aid it became apparent that they were not ready to accept the need for disaster relief experts, and aid workers to distribute the aid. The Burmese army does not have the experience, knowledge or logistical capacity to co-ordinate a relief effort of this magnitude.

 

The first duty of any Government is to protect the people whose interests they are supposed to represent. However, the Burmese military leadership have refused to face up to the magnitude of the disaster that has struck their country, even refusing to take telephone calls from the UN Secretary-General. Their attitude led to intense international lobbying of countries in the region that have influence over the Burmese regime. Every effort was made to assure them that this was a humanitarian response, and that there was no political intent. Late last week it was announced that the Burmese regime had met the UN Secretary-General and were going to allow foreign aid and foreign relief workers into the country.

 

Differences

Following the Chinese earthquake, which took place days after the cyclone, the responses of the two governments contrasted sharply. China immediately accepted help from around the world, including from Taiwan with whom they have long running political differences. In the days following Burma has begun to slowly follow China’s lead, including declaring three days of national mourning for the cyclone victims.

 

Aid agencies and the international community have felt huge frustration with the attitude of the Burmese leadership. Some have called for air drops of aid, but on closer examination this is not really a viable option. Aid agencies point out that airdrops work best where there are proper drop zones and trained workers on the ground to collect and distribute the aid. Water cannot be dropped, and much of the delta area is covered by salinated water. There is also the danger that co-operation achieved with the regime would be sacrificed, and they could shut down the supply roots that are now beginning to open up.

 

At a meeting of the Foreign Ministers of ASEAN (the Association of South East Asian Nations) on the 19th May there was agreement to establish an ASEAN-led coordinating mechanism. Drawing from the Indonesian experience during the 2004 tsunami, this will facilitate the effective distribution and use of aid from the international community, including the effective deployment of relief workers, especially health and medical personnel. However, there has been no guarantee that aid and disaster relief workers from other countries will be given access.

 

So far relief efforts remain localised. Many victims have received no aid at all.  The World Health Organisation has reported some cases of cholera in the delta. There are fears that water contaminated by corpses and the unsanitary conditions of makeshift refugee camps could spark a deadly epidemic if there are further delays in allowing international assistance in. Burma is to host a donor conference to help pool together aid. The UN Secretary General is in the country and will tour the affected region.

 

When we reflect on the implications from the Asian tsunami of 2004, we should recognise that the danger for the people of Burma is far from over. Not only is there an immediate risk of ill health and starvation, but the possibility of planting next year’s rice crop is doubtful, without which future hardship is guaranteed.

 

Incredibly in these dreadful circumstances the Burmese military regime chose to go ahead with a referendum on the country’s constitution. Even before the cyclone the referendum was judged unlikely to be free and fair; now the outcome is without any credibility. But at present the political situation must take a back seat to the humanitarian effort.

 

Declining

Foreign journalists are kept out of Burma, and without their reports and pictures on our TV’s the story is declining in coverage. Without widespread media coverage the story dies, and so do hundreds, perhaps thousands, more Burmese men, women and children. We need to do what we can to ensure that the Burmese people are not forgotten, that we recognise our common humanity.

 

Meg Munn MP

Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office.


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