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.



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