Saturday, May 10, 2008

Burma: A Story of Fear and Power

I want to address the situation in Myanmar/Burma as I see it from the outside. Having witnessed Sidr and the damage it wrought on Bangladesh, and noting the obvious differences between what is reported and the actual effects of the disaster. The story itself is surprisingly clear. A cyclone made land-fall on the Iawaddy coast and destroyed huge swaths of land and killed thousands in a country whose poverty level is high, and whose political freedom and transperancy is possibly the tightest in the world. I will try and explain some of the complexities surrounding this issue. None of these are hidden, but some are often forgotten about.

Problem: Burmese citizens are in desperate need of clean water, food and shelter.

Solution: Somewhere between unilaterally entering the country to help and not doing anything because the government is not welcoming.

Firstly, I have a sinking feeling in my stomach just thinking about the victims of this disaster. Not only were they the victims of a terrible storm, but they are the victims of the Junta, of unpreparedness and poverty. This story is made ever more poignant by the fact that the world stands by and watches while people die, and a leadership based on fear and power maintenance does not have the capacity to make any headway. I pain most not for the thousands of dead, that deed was done, but for the families of the survivors. I pray for the sick, the injured and the orphan. But the question remains what is our response?

Material aid is needed. Food aid is desperately needed and housing will be a huge priority as the monsoon season is just a few weeks away. But most important is clean drinking water. Months after Sidr, clean drinking water was still being distributed in the worst hit areas where wells and ponds had yet to be cleaned and serviced. But immediate material aid is only a start. A start that has yet to materialize. The long term needs of these victims need to be thought about now. What will happen after the Junta removes aid workers? How will people be able to cope with their loss in the country when the world has once again forgotten about them? These are some of the challenges faced outside of the need to actually get people into the country.

That brings me to the sad tale of a government whose fear of the world, has made them capable of allowing thousands of people to die, and all this out of fear. The Junta understand that they are not popular, not among their own people nor in the world at large. They have retained power by imposing a restrictive censored state. Information does not get in, and information does not get out. Tourists are not welcome outside the Juntas hand-picked cities and "tourist sites". The country is covered in a blanket of silence, but a massive storm with the power to kill such as this, cannot go unnoticed. Interestingly enough, the Junta's hold on power is seemingly more important to them, not only than the lives of those in the country, but also more important than the money they could make off of aid organizations. Governments are not stupid, and governments like to skim off the top. A figure of 10% has popped up in conversation recently as the percentage of aid that actually gets to the victims. And that was in the context of Bangladesh, I would not doubt that Burma could be even lower. The Junta could, and possibly will, use the money that does come in to fill the coffers and maintain a stronger iron grip on the country. But seemingly more important than that, is that Burmese people would not have access to international aid organizations. This fear of foreigners messing in internal affairs could, and hopefully will be a tipping point for the Burmese people. The role of the international community in this scenario is to support the people in their struggle for survival and for a government based on care and support of the people. To not forget about Burma is the most important thing we can do.

There is no easy solution to what is happening now in Myanmar/Burma. Aid is needed and people are dying. The government is oppressive and fearful of international pressure, and the victims are stuck in the middle of this political landscape. People need help, and the wrong people are going to benefit, the sad reality of poverty and power. How to address those poverty structures is an area of study and thought for years to come.

Peace and prayers to the victims of this horrible atrocity.

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