Burma (Myanmar) Aid Logjam Riles Donors

By Montero, David | The Christian Science Monitor, May 9, 2008 | Go to article overview

Burma (Myanmar) Aid Logjam Riles Donors


Montero, David, The Christian Science Monitor


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. …

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