- Burma - cyclone - military junta - referendum
Despite mounting international pressure, Burma’s military generals resisted foreign aid offers Tuesday, opting to retain control of aid distribution to victims of the deadly Cyclone Nargis.
Eleven days after the disaster, which killed 34,273 people and left about 28,000 homeless, according to official figures, the Burmese junta affirmed that “the nation does not require specialized humanitarian relief workers,” and that “the needs of hundreds of thousands of disaster victims” were being met. This was according to Vice-Admiral Soe Thein, quoted in the government mouthpiece, “New Light of Myanmar”.
Is international aid being diverted?
Reporting from the hermetically closed Southeast Asian nation, FRANCE 24’s Anaïs Boussat witnessed helpless Burmese citizens waiting to receive government aid. “I visited a monastery close to Rangoon where 90 disaster victims were placed. Some had lost everything: their houses, their harvests and sometimes their close relatives. Many seemed exhausted. The monastery has been able to nourish these people thanks to private donations. One of the victims said the State had only given him five rice bags, which is very insufficient.”
A Burmese man, who declined to provide his name due to security fears, described the situation as catastrophic. “It’s the first time we have been confronted with this sort of disaster. For the moment, the help being given is just not sufficient. We need more assistance and especially additional private aid.”
Our special correspondent wonders about the origin of the food aid arriving in the disaster-struck Irrawaddy Delta. “The aid, which is being distributed to the population, seems primarily Burmese,” she said. “The trucks bear signs emblazoned with the name of donors: private patrons, companies, temples and governmental organizations. This aid is distributed in a very official manner, in the presence of police officers and soldiers. But I did not see any sign of international assistance in the Irrawaddy Delta. This absence can appear strange as international assistance has been arriving in Rangoon. One wonders if the international assistance is being diverted. Its origin is perhaps masked or transformed upon arrival in the country.”
Political fallout of the catastrophe
Reporting from Rangoon, Rémy Favre, correspondent for RFI and FRANCE 24, speaks about the possible political consequences of the cyclone. “I met several Burmese people who believe the catastrophe could perhaps open a political window. For the moment, people are afraid to express themselves, but they are aware that food aid distribution has been tardy due to the government’s slowness and suspicions. They have access to international media – especially foreign cable stations. And much of the Burmese population is very angry.”
Favre also talks about an economic crisis and the possibility of rising prices. “Remember it was inflation that started the mass demonstrations of Buddhist monks in August,” he said.
International pressure and aid in drips and drabs
In a bid to control international aid distribution, Burma has cautiously opened its doors. The first US military plane with aid landed in Rangoon Monday. The US sent an additional plane Tuesday and a third is expected to arrive.
In addition, EU Development and Aid Commissioner Louis Michel announced that the EU had obtained a visa to enter to Burma. The EU has called on the Burmese authorities to authorize the distribution of humanitarian aid “free of any obstacles”.
For their part, the United Nations has called for an air or sea corridor to be opened to channel international aid into Burma. On Monday, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, expressed “his immense frustration” in the face of the Burmese government’s “unacceptable” slowness in its respond to the current crisis.