Burma (Myanmar) aid logjam riles donors

UN members rejected a proposal Thursday to forgo junta permission and force aid in.

Burma News Agency via Xinhua
CyClone-Stricken: A village in the Irrawaddy delta, in southern Burma, shows the effects of cyclone Nargis. The United Nations has estimated that Saturday’s cyclone left more than 1 million victims homeless. The international community is urging the country’s military junta to allow foreign aid workers and supplies to enter the diplomatically isolated country. So far, shipments have arrived from Japan, Bangladesh, India, Laos, China, Thailand, and Singapore, and the United Nations World Food Program, according to AP.

In Burma's spiraling humanitarian crisis, the international community faces a uniquely confounding scenario: how to overcome the military government's foot-dragging response.

Key international players rejected France's proposal that the United Nations should force aid into Burma (Myanmar) by invoking its "responsibility to protect" citizens when their government failed to do so.

The military regime's resistance to outside aid means that, almost a week after cyclone Nargis left as many as 100,000 dead and 1 million homeless, international shipments remain bottlenecked and most foreign aid workers still lack visas.

It also reflects a government mentality that may have left much of its populace unprepared for Saturday's cyclone, far less so than in many neighboring nations.

Critics say the lack of a disaster mechanism highlights the skewed priorities of Burma's Army-led regime. "The Burmese government prioritizes the military, not serving the people. They rule through public fear, not public support," says Win Min, a Burmese analyst in Thailand.

International aid bottlenecked

International figures from UN chief Ban Ki Moon to President Bush have urged the Burmese government to speedily accept badly needed humanitarian aid.

So far, shipments have arrived from Japan, Bangladesh, India, Laos, China, Thailand, and Singapore, according to the Associated Press. The UN World Food Program (WFP) delivered its first planeloads Thursday.

Relief agencies including the WFP, however, reported that many of their staff were still having trouble getting into the notoriously closed country, which has been ruled by a secretive military junta since 1962.

"A few visas are coming through. But there are still a number of key [UN] staff who have not gotten their visas," says Richard Horsey, a spokesman for the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, speaking from Thailand.

"This is clearly a concern, because it's critical that these key staff get in and begin coordinating relief efforts," Mr. Horsey continued.

Several international naval ships, including an American vessel, have also positioned themselves just offshore from the disaster site, with helicopters and supplies to aid in the assistance.

"We can intervene in the hours, or minutes, to come," said Mr. Kouchner, referring to French ships nearby. But they have not yet been given the go ahead, the Associated Press added.

Meanwhile, Kouchner's proposal of forcing aid into the country gained little traction. Confrontation would not be helpful, UN Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs David Holmes said Thursday, a stance echoed by the European Commission, China, and other nations.

"I can understand the sentiment of France's foreign minister, but I don't think it's the solution," says James Schoff, associate director of Asia-Pacific studies at the Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis in Cambridge, Mass.

"You could get to a point where [the UN] could just do drops from the air. But for the whole assessment process – I don't see how you could do that without working with locals on the ground," he continues.

Analysts are hard pressed to recall a natural disaster where the UN's "responsibility to protect" – a phrase conceived in 2005 largely in response to atrocities in Rwanda and Darfur – has been invoked.

There is probably no other possibility for delivering aid to Burma right now, Mr. Schoff continues, other than slow diplomatic gains and persistence. In a few days, Burma might come around, he says.

Were Burmese citizens warned?

Critics see the Burmese government's foot-dragging as part of a pattern of lack of care for its populace: Another flashpoint of international criticism has been whether the government there failed to adequately warn victims of the coming storm, leading to greater losses of life.

Burma's government insists that it used its storm warning system to save lives. "We sent a warning one week [before the cyclone]. We sent it through fax, through television, and through our state-run media," says a duty officer at Burma's Department of Meteorology and Hydrology in Rangoon (Yangon), who refused to give his name.

Burma has one of the region's least effective disaster response systems, experts say. Unlike neighboring Bangladesh, which has 42,000 cyclone volunteers and almost 3,000 cyclone shelters along its coastline, Burma has neither.

The contrast underscores that the high death toll in the cyclone was not caused by a failure to warn victims alone, but by a wider failure of national priorities, one that puts the government's welfare before that of the public, critics contend.

Questions have also accumulated as to whether officials in Burma knew Saturday's storm was barreling down on the country's central coast.

Meteorological officials in India say they warned the Burmese government well ahead of time. "We issued a warning 36 hours in advance. Everything was told to the concerned officials in Myanmar: the intensity of the storm, the time of impact, where it will land – and that information was updated every three hours," says B.P. Yadav, a spokesman for the Indian Meteorological Department in New Delhi.

Burma's meteorological office said it received the warning from India and used it to issue a warning.

But critics say the warning was ineffectively disseminated, costing more lives. "They issued a typical storm report that nobody listened to. It was on page 4 or page 5 of the [state-run] newspaper," says Aung Saw, editor of Irrawadday, an opposition newspaper based in Thailand, relying on reports he received from inside Burma. "If it had been on page 1 ... maybe thousands of lives would have been saved."

"The cyclone warning from India to the authorities was ignored or downplayed by the weather forecasts on Burmese TV," wrote a Burmese resident, who asked not to be identified, in an e-mail. "It stated that the cyclone has lost its intensity and will go up north, and Rangoon will be hit only marginally, and the wind velocity hitting Burma will be reduced to 40/50 mph."

But "the cyclone hit the wooden and thatched dwelling[s] across the delta without warning at 150 m.p.h., and it lasted for 6 hours or more," he continued.

The controversy highlights the fact that Burma has one of the most poorly administered disaster response systems in the region. Some experts say it may have none at all.

"According to our records, they don't have any preparedness measures," says Brigitte Leoni, a spokeswoman for the UN disaster reduction agency in Geneva. "But the problem we have is, we can't get in to the country, so we just don't know."

Building cyclone preparedness

Burma's situation contrasts sharply with regional neighbors', experts say, whose example Burma should now follow.

Prior to the 2004 tsunami, Indian Ocean countries, including Indonesia, lacked an early warning system and were heavily criticized for failing to alert their citizens to the arrival of the tsunami. After the disaster, the United Nations helped set up an Indian Ocean tsunami warning system, which uses underwater seismic sensors to relay information to monitoring centers around the region.

Bangladesh has set up one of the world's most advanced and effective cyclone response systems, observers say. The key to its success is people like M.A. Wahab. He runs Bangladesh's Cyclone Preparedness Program, created in 1972 by the Bangladesh Red Crescent Society. Last year, his army of volunteers were ready five days before cyclone Sidr even hit Bangladesh's coast, and they rushed victims to shelters. About 3,000 people were killed by that cyclone, compared with 500,000 people in a 1970 cyclone.

"Our volunteers have an organizational structure up to the village level. They're from the community and the community knows them so they can issue information quickly," says Mr. Wahab, speaking from Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh.

Good response and preparation systems require strong political commitment from authorities, says Ms. Leoni, of the UN disaster relief agency. "There needs to be political will and the government needs to invest money," she says.

Danna Harman contributed from Tel Aviv.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.