Monday, May 19, 2008

Burma's Generals Are The Problem (Times Two)

There's another reason why Burma's military regime is the main problem in the wake of Cyclone Nargis.

An interview with Burma specialist Sean Turnell in today's Irrawaddy notes the regime is not only blocking international aid, it is also refusing to spend its own considerable reserves.

Sean Turnell notes:

"I think it’s important to remember, of course, that the regime currently has around $4 billion in foreign exchange reserves that they got from the gas sales. In kyat terms that’s over 4 trillion kyat. So the idea that they’re giving 5 billion kyat in relief funds is the most extraordinarily ungenerous thing imaginable. Also of course, this is the people’s money; it’s not the generals’ money at all. They’ve accumulated all of Burma’s vast export revenue from the gas, which should belong to the people, so the idea that they’re handing back is an extraordinarily poor thing and it unfortunately summarizes so much of what the regime’s response has been to this cyclone."


"The Burmese regime is currently earning just over $100 million every single month. If we have a look at the public accounts, what we see is an incredible accounting trick—the regime has logged into the public accounts the gas revenue according to the official exchange rate, which undervalues it by 200 times. Effectively, that means that $3 billion is sitting somewhere. Now where it’s sitting is the interesting question, but what we do know is that it’s sitting somewhere where Burmese people can’t get access to it."

"So either it’s sitting offshore or it’s sitting in the accounts of the Myanmar Foreign Trade Bank or the Central Bank. But it looks like it’s only accessible by Than Shwe and perhaps one or two others; it’s not being used for the benefit of the Burmese people, which of course is critical at the moment. This sort of money can do an enormous amount with regard to the cyclone disaster, but it seems to be deliberately withheld."


"Well I think we can expect the money to be used in the way they’ve always used foreign exchange—for things like the new capital at Naypyidaw, for the nuclear reactor, if that goes ahead. I’m sure people will remember the 1,000 percent pay increases for senior military personnel and various other wasteful capital projects like that. They are, in a sense, glorifying the regime rather than relieving the suffering, which is certainly the most important way the money could be used at the moment."

In the interview, entitled "A Shattered Rice Bowl," Turnell describes the long-term damage to Burma's principal rice-growing region by the cyclone.

Unless the Burma's generals stop blocking foreign aid and open up their own plentiful coffers, they will cause an additional hundreds of thousands of deaths as well as wrecking Burma's future capacity to grow its own food.


This article is cross-posted on the blog of the International Campaign for the Freedom of Aung San Suu Kyi and Burma.



Sunday, May 18, 2008

Burma's Crony Capitalists Cash In

In her book "The Shock Doctrine," Naomi Klein describes how politically-connected corporations obtain lucrative government contracts in the aftermath of the disruption of wars and natural disasters. This is sadly already occurring in Burma.

Burma is ruled by an unaccountable and authoritarian military junta. In 1989, Burma's ruling generals shucked off their veneer of "socialism" and announced that they would supposedly move to a market economy. This "sham capitalism" has proved to no different in substance than the regime's earlier "sham socialism." Both are just a cover for the military's continued dominance of political and economic power.

The early 1990s saw the rise of Burma's crony capitalists. These politically-connected friends of the junta used their personal contacts and outright corruption to form symbiotic business relationships with key Burmese generals.

The military junta is now giving contracts to many of its favored companies for reconstruction in the disaster areas of Cyclone Nargis. The regime has awarded many contracts to crony businessmen under the current financial sanctions imposed by the
United States, European Union, and Australia

Informed sources say that the regime has awarded
contracts to rebuild buildings in cyclone-devastated Labutta Township. These contracts have been won by Ayar Shwe War Company, owned by General Thura Shwe Mann's son Aung Thet Mann, and Zaykabar, owned by Khin Shwe, who is targeted by US sanctions. Several years ago, Zaykabar was reported to be a front for the regime's contracts with American PR firms hired to put a smiling face on the junta's deserved reputation for repression.

Stories are also circulating that the Htoo Companies, owned by Tay Zar, who is also targeted by US sanctions, and Diamond Mercury Company were awarded contracts to rebuild in
Bogale Township, which will be monitored by Brigadier-General Thein Aung.

Asia World Group of Companies owned by Steven Law, who is also under the
US financial sanctions and is even reported to have business links to Burma's drug trade, has won a contract to rebuild schools and offices in Kungyangone Township.

Needless to say, these crony capitalists have obtained free access to the cyclone-affected regions of Burma while the military is actively restricting access to those areas to aid workers and journalists.


Friday, May 16, 2008

Myanmar's killing fields of neglect

Thelma Young, one of our excellent staff at the U.S. Campaign for Burma, sent me this article. It speaks for itself.

Shawn Crispin is one of Southeast Asia's most prominent journalists

“As the international community looks on in stunned disbelief, Myanmar's junta has again invoked it's own perceived "right to kill", which the ruling generals have historically and frequently used against its own citizens to maintain their brutal grip on power. As the UN dithers, the fact remains that only the USmilitary now has the power to avert a wider human catastrophe.

Myanmar's killing fields of neglect
By Shawn W Crispin
Asia Times Online, May 16, 2008

BANGKOK - With an estimated two million people at risk of death by disease, deprivation or starvation and the scant amount of foreign aid that has entered the country diverted from those most in need, Myanmar's worst case humanitarian scenario is now playing out in full view of the international community.

As the death toll mounts and the United Nations futilely negotiates with the country's ruling generals to open Myanmar's borders and allow a multinational response to the Cyclone Nagris disaster, the moral case for a unilateral US military-led humanitarian intervention has grown.

Certain US officials have argued behind closed doors for a military response to the disaster, one that would allow the US navy and marines on standby in nearby waters to bypass the diplomatic dithering at the UN Security Council and distribute aid directly to desperate storm victims. Myanmar ally China has predictably blocked the global body from invoking a "right to protect" principle, underscoring the cynicism of Beijing's commercially driven foreign policy.

Yet so far the UN and US have played by the junta's rules, sending aid in by air force cargo planes toYangon airport and allowing military officials to handle in-country distribution. It's altogether unclear what percentage of that limited amount of aid has actually reached victims, and how much has been diverted for political purposes to junta loyalists.

Despite the belated shipments, European Union officials say that famine is a growing possibility for the worst-hit areas, what some are beginning to characterize as "Myanmar's killing fields of neglect". The official understated death toll is now up around 38,500, with an additional 27,800 considered missing; one United Kingdom official and aid agencies have revised up that statistic to around 200,000, double the UN's previous 100,000 dead and missing estimate.

It's unclear how many of those new estimated deaths could have been avoided with a rapid international response to the crisis. Disaster relief experts earlier estimated that they had a 10-day window to reach victims with assistance to avoid a massive second wave of deaths. That assessment was predicated on the misguided notion that foreign aid and emergency personnel would be allowed into the country, which until now they have not.

On Thursday, the junta provisionally agreed to allow 160 Asian - not Western - relief personnel into the country, though their movements are expected to be tightly restricted to Yangon and its outlying townships. The junta has throughout the crisis insisted it has the situation under control, which by any humanitarian measure it woefully does not.

Authorities have simultaneously bid to cover up the scale of the disaster, both by cynically understating official casualty counts and through a Tuesday directive from Prime Minister Thein Sein to bar foreigners from entering the delta's worst-hit areas. It has by now become woefully apparent that the brutal regime is willing to allow potentially hundreds of thousands more to die rather than lose face in admitting the necessity of UN-led and US-delivered disaster assistance.

Instead, the military government continues to monopolize aid delivery, despite its utter lack of expertise and hardware to manage what if handled properly should be a massive search-and-rescue operation. One Western military official told Asia Times Online that Myanmar's military possesses only six sometimes functioning helicopters, nowhere near the size of the fleet needed to reach all those stranded in the delta's inaccessible coastal areas.

Death by corruption
There is a more troubling question of political will. As the death toll mounts, the regime advertently continues to prioritize aid delivery to regime loyalists, soldiers and their family members, apparently to avoid a possible revolt among the rank and file.

Foreign assistance earmarked for delivery to cyclone victims, including food, water and mosquito nets, have been hijacked and sold at inflated prices in local markets, according to a Western diplomat tracking events.

He said that some foreign aid, particularly high-quality Western-made mosquito nets and blankets, have been diverted and are now on sale in neighboring southwestern China, where consumer purchasing power is stronger than in Myanmar. "The government is stealing aid on arrival," said the diplomat. "Many ministers see this as a pay day, a godsend, for greasing their patronage networks."

While profiteering from the sale of supplies, the junta is handling the disaster more as a security than humanitarian crisis. Thousands of storm survivors have been rounded up in makeshift camps, where they are being treated more like prisoners than victims. The US Campaign for Burma, an advocacy group, says that those who have entered the military-run camps have subsequently not been allowed to leave or meet with outsiders.

Some say there is also an emerging ethnic dimension to the junta's lackluster response. One well-placed Western diplomat says that the junta has prioritized Buddhist Burmans over other ethnic and religious groups in its aid distribution. That skewed distribution, he contends, has been aimed in particular at the ethnic Karen, which made up a large percentage of the delta's population and through the Karen National Union have for decades waged a guerilla war for independence in nearby border areas.

At least one Western government is now considering in response to the junta's lame response - and potential passive ethnic cleansing policies - to deliver aid and supplies to border areas in Thailand, where several international relief organizations are already established. If done, it would inevitable lead to a mass migration of storm victims out of Myanmar into Thailand, a scenario Bangkok is clearly trying to avoid, not least through its well-publicized and early food aid donations to its allies in the junta.

By now, several diplomats, politicians and commentators have pointed to the UN's "responsibility to protect" principle as possible grounds to violate Myanmar's sovereignty and force aid upon the country, either through military air drops or supplies landed through offshore ships.

Unfortunately that won't happen any time soon due to China's intransigence and veto power on the Security Council. During a UN session earlier this week, China's deputy ambassador made a spirited case against invoking the principle to force aid on Myanmar, arguing preposterously that nobody invoked the principle when France suffered from a recent heat wave which killed thousands of its citizens.

Some now claim that the UN is playing a cagey "good cop, bad cop" routine with the junta, where some member states like France publicly argue for invoking the "right to protect", while other UN officials negotiate with the hard-line regime to allow in more international aid and workers, including apparently the 160 Asian relief workers the junta agreed to give visas to on Thursday.

Clearly that response is too little, too late, considering the huge scale of Myanmar's now intensifying humanitarian crisis. And as the military government pilfers and diverts an unknown but likely large proportion of the foreign aid so desperately needed by its own citizens, it's more readily argued that it's the junta that is playing the UN - not the other way around.

As the international community looks on in stunned disbelief, Myanmar's junta has again invoked it's own perceived "right to kill", which the ruling generals have historically and frequently used against its own citizens to maintain their brutal grip on power. As the UN dithers, the fact remains that only the USmilitary now has the power to avert a wider human catastrophe.

If ever there was an opportunity for the US to make moral use its military might, a humanitarian intervention in Myanmar is it.
Shawn W Crispin is Asia Times Online's Southeast Asia Editor.


Naomi Klein on the Politics of Disaster in Burma

One of my favorite journalists and commentators, Naomi Klein, has just published an excellent article in The Nation.

Naomi Klein highlights why Burma's generals need to divert cyclone aid to its already hungry soldiers. Burma's paramount leader, Than Shwe, cannot afford to alienate the only force throughout Burma that holds weapons.

Key quote:

"None of this compares with the rage boiling over in Burma, where cyclone survivors have badly beaten at least one local official, furious at his failure to distribute aid. There have been dozens of reports of the Burmese junta taking credit for supplies sent by foreign countries. It turns out that they have been taking more than credit--in some cases they have been taking the aid. According to a report in Asia Times, the regime has been hijacking food shipments and distributing them among its 400,000 soldiers. The reason speaks to the threat the disaster poses to the very existence of the regime. The generals, it seems, are "haunted by an almost pathological fear of a split inside their own ranks...if soldiers are not given priority in aid distribution and are unable to feed themselves, the possibility of mutiny rises." Mark Farmaner, director of Burma Campaign UK, confirms that before the cyclone, the military was already coping with a wave of desertions."

"This relatively small-scale theft of food is fortifying the junta for its much larger heist--the one taking place via the constitutional referendum the generals have insisted on holding, come hell and high water. Enticed by high commodity prices, Burma's generals have been gorging off the country's natural abundance, stripping it of gems, timber, rice and oil. As profitable as this arrangement is, junta leader Gen. Than Shwe knows he cannot resist the calls for democracy indefinitely."

"Taking a page out of the playbook of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, the generals have drafted a Constitution that allows for elections but guarantees that no future government will ever have the power to prosecute them for their crimes or take back their ill-gotten wealth. As Farmaner puts it, after elections the junta leaders "are going to be wearing suits instead of boots." The cyclone, meanwhile, has presented them with one last, vast business opportunity: by blocking aid from reaching the highly fertile Irrawaddy delta, hundreds of thousands of mostly ethnic Karen rice farmers are being sentenced to death. According to Farmaner, "that land can be handed over to the generals' business cronies" (shades of the beachfront land grabs in Sri Lanka and Thailand after the Asian tsunami). This isn't incompetence, or even madness. It's laissez-faire ethnic cleansing."

The regime has crossed another crucial line. The first was killing Burma's respected Buddhist monks. The second is mismanaging, diverting, and stealing aid for the cyclone victims. While it may not yet be apparent, the generals' power is gradually slipping from its grasp. There is now a new opportunity for the Burmese people - supported by us in the international community - to curb or do away with its callous regime.



Thursday, May 15, 2008

Cyclone Nargis in Burma (Myanmar): How You Can Help

As many of you know, I'm Co-chair of the board of directors of the U.S. Campaign for Burma:

Several of my friends have asked how they can best help the hundreds of thousands of people who lost their home, their family, and their livelihood in Burma (Myanmar).

Since the cyclone struck Burma, I've been working almost full-time on helping to provide access to aid for those affected. It's been a crash course for me in humanitarian relief in Burma. Here's what I've learned.

1. It is best to donate to small charities. The big charities (Red Cross, World Vision, etc.) have big publicity machines and are likely not hurting for donations. We should give our "smart money" to the most effective small charities who devote their money solely for relief and spend little to no money on fund-raising or overhead.

2. It is best to give to charities who were on the ground prior to the cyclone. They are experienced with Burma, already have a network of Burmese partners, and know how to best bypass the regime's rampant mismanagement, diversion, and blatant stealing of aid.

3. Please donate to political action as well as relief. The problem is not that there is insufficient aid. Aid is already piling up on the borders. The real problems is that the Burmese military regime is taking control of aid deliveries and diverting it to feed the army. (The regime is scared that their own troops are hungry and have weapons. The generals fear mutinies and even a large-scale insurrection by junior officers and rank-and-file soldiers.) The regime is also refusing access to the affected regions by aid workers and journalists. It will take political pressure on the regime to force them to let in the aid. That requires funding the organizations that are organizing the most effective political pressure.

Regarding aid, I do recommend Thirst Aid, which was inside Burma before the cyclone and has already been delivering water purification tablets. (Thirst Aid is a small charity run by a couple of experienced Burma aid activists in Oregon and has very little overhead.)

Foundation for the People of Burma was established by Hal Nathan, a San Francisco money manager and, I believe, Buddhist. This group has worked through monasteries inside Burma for several years.

Burma Lifeline is run by Tad and Inge Sargent, long-time Free Burma activists based in Boulder, Colorado.

Burma Border Projects is run by Michael Forhan, a long-time friend and comrade-in-arms. Based out of Worcester, MA, he has been bringing over medical supplies and medical professionals to the famous Dr. Cynthia's clinic Thai-Burma border. The doctors, dentists, nurses, and psychologists not only provide treatment but also provide training for "backpack doctors," who risk their lives to cross the border on foot into war zones in Burma and provide medical treatment.

The U.S. Campaign for Burma is raising money that people can earmark for relief. These funds are being passed though 100%. I cannot go into detail about the groups inside Burma to which we are directly sending the money. If the regime learned that we were giving money to those organizations, they would very likely steal the money and put the people in prison.

I would also recommend donations for the political work of the U.S. Campaign for Burma, Burma Campaign UK, and Canadian Friends of Burma. These do the most effective work in lobbying the United Nations, U.S. government and Congress as well as the European Union and its member governments to put pressure on the Burmese military regime to open up its borders for aid and for experienced aid workers.

Thank you for your consideration. Namaste.