Prodding Burma's (Myanmar's) neighbors

Western states want Asian nations to pressure Burma to accept help.

Rebuilding: Near the Burmese capital of Rangoon (Yangon), two men repaired a house on Wednesday. Southeast Asian nations plan to meet Monday about sending aid to villages affected by cyclone Nargis.
SOURCE: United Nations/AP
wally santana/AP
A US marine placed a sticker after packaging USAID supplies bound for cyclone-devastated Burma at the Utapao Air Force base near Rayong, Thailand. US military aid deliveries to Burma entered their third day on Wednesday; Burma's military junta has since approved five more rounds of aid flight.
Burma Prime Minister Thein Sein (r.), and his Thai counterpart Samak Sundaravej looked at a map of Burma in Rangoon (Yangon) on May 14.

Officers in crisp longyis stare incredulously at a Westerner walking into the police station. One calls for backup from senior government officials.

Asked how foreigners can help the Burmese, they seem offended. "Why do you think we need your help?" asks one. "We warmly welcome the supplies from your country. We can take care of our country by ourselves."

In a state where officials lack authority and mistrust Westerners, it's not easy to plug in aid workers from Western nations that have sought to isolate the regime.

Amid warnings of another storm, pressure is mounting on Southeast Asian nations, which have come under fire for failing to prod the country to better respond to the disaster. Western countries and aid groups hope Burma's neighbors will be more able to open the door.

"If the Burmese government is going to listen to anybody, they're going to be most receptive to ASEAN," says Ian Rodgers, an adviser with Save the Children in Washington. "I actually think that if anything is going to work, then this is it. It won't work at the speed at which we want it to work."

Thailand was one of the first countries to begin delivering aid after cyclone Nargis hit on May 3, killing about 100,000 and affecting up to 2.5 million more. Other neighbors have also contributed.

But a regional effort has been slower. ASEAN should have immediately intervened on the shipment of foreign aid, said Philippine opposition figure Sen. Aquilino Pimentel Jr., adding that it was "barbaric" for Burma (Myanmar) to refuse foreign supplies of water, food, and medicine.

Diplomats confirmed Wednesday that Burma has agreed to meet with Southeast Asian foreign ministers in Singapore next Monday to discuss bringing in aid.

"The ministers will discuss the humanitarian situation in Myanmar and consider how best to assist Myanmar in its relief and recovery efforts," Singapore's Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement, the Associated Press reported.

But the "emergency meeting," which comes more than two weeks after the cyclone hit, may be too late for many.

ASEAN's tradition of noninterference in domestic affairs does not bode well for European calls for unilateral military aid deliveries.

After visiting a government relief center in Rangoon (Yangon), Thai Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej said the junta guaranteed him that there are no disease outbreaks and no starvation among survivors.

"They have their own team to cope with the situation," Mr. Samak said, citing Burmese Prime Minister Lt. Gen. Thein Sein. "From what I have seen, I am impressed with their management."

He said the Burmese generals told him that they're in control of relief operations and don't need foreign experts.

The junta did agree to allow Thai medical teams to go to the delta on Friday, said Thawat Sutharacha of Thailand's Public Health Ministry. The junta has also promised to allow 160 relief workers from nearby countries to come in.

Largely sidelined since the cyclone hit, Western aid workers, who are accustomed to taking charge in disaster zones, might have to reluctantly accept a role in the passenger seat in order to get things done – the Burmese way.

"Everyone should be dealt with equally. But the reality is that a lot of Asian countries prefer to deal with other Asians," says James East, spokesperson for World Vision, which has 580 staff inside Burma, including an Indonesian, Ethiopian, and Japanese who are leading relief efforts.

"I think a lot of aid agencies will be looking to supplement their relief efforts by positioning Asian staff in Myanmar. It's easier for Asian staff to get visas for Myanmar," he continues. Sending in Asian nationals reflects the changing reality of international relief groups, Mr. East says. "It's not really about bringing in white faces from Western countries. It's about sourcing expertise globally."

Doctors Without Borders, which already has 43 international staff plus about 1,200 local workers, says it still needs to get in more experts in sanitation and logistics. "We want to get as much aid in as possible, and as fast as possible," says Veronique Terrasse, an officer with the nongovernmental organization.

Burma's weak social services can be seen in the only hospital in Myawaddy, where mongrels and a woman carrying mangosteens on her head are free to wander into grimy, windowless rooms where mosquitoes buzz. The country of 50 million people has four medical colleges. Doctors here earn $3 a day and work at private clinics after hours to get by.

A day's journey through the state apparatus in Myawaddy shows how difficult it is for foreigners to deal with officials who lack decision-making power and experience with Westerners, whom the regime continues to blame for centuries of imperialism. At the Basic Middle School, children play in a sewer in front of signs in English declaring it a "Drugs Free School." A teacher shoos a way a lone foreigner listening to kids singing and playing complex Burmese drum beats using an iron railing, a plank, and a bottle. "Visiting is not permitted," she says.

At Myawaddy's high school, a teacher hurries to close a gate on a visiting foreigner. "It is not permitted," she says.

Staff writer Peter Smith contributed to this story.

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