In the days since Cyclone Nargis passed through Burma on May 2 and 3, bringing a tidal surge with it to the delta region that has literally swept away hundreds of villages, it has become painfully obvious that the country’s government is completely unable to deal with what has happened.
In the immediate aftermath of the storm, local residents in somewhat affected areas, including Rangoon, banded together to do everything from clearing roads to distributing emergency supplies of water and food. In many rural areas, monks have taken charge as thousands of people have converged on monasteries, which are among the sturdiest buildings and which often have stockpiles of donated wood, food and other necessities.
The lack of any official presence in these parts has been striking in a country where government agents, in and out of uniform, are normally omnipresent. But the absurdity, ineptitude and persistent greed that characterize so much administrative conduct in Burma have in some areas become most apparent after soldiers, police and bureaucrats have finally turned up.
In one part of Rangoon, a fistfight reportedly broke out when outraged locals saw that water tankers were delivering supplies to the homes of council members and military officers but not to anyone else.
At Pazundaung, a unit of soldiers went to nearby houses to ask for machetes with which to cut fallen trees. Their commander demanded a car to oversee his men and shopkeepers were called upon to give chains with which to drag timber from the road.
In the worst affected areas, flattened villages and ruined crops are still littered with bodies and not a single person has turned up to assist. Many places, such as Laputta, remain partly submerged and the numbers of the dead and missing not yet entered into the daily rising tallies.
So where are Burma’s neighbors? Not long after the storm struck, the Association of Southeast Asian Nation’s secretary-general, the former foreign minister of Thailand, Surin Pitsuwan, called on the other nine member states to give generously, and hoped the same of its partners, which include heavyweights China, South Korea and Japan. (See news of his latest statement.)
His appeal seems to have fallen on deaf ears. The amount of assistance so far offered from all of these countries has been paltry, to put it kindly: limited to some bundles of cash to government bank accounts and a few planeloads of supplies, or in India’s case, a couple of boatloads; given the size of the disaster, hardly worthy of comment.
The absence of any significant response from China, India, South Korea, Japan and Thailand is shocking. China and India have been vying over the country for both strategic and economic reasons for years; Japan and South Korea have longstanding business and personal links, and the distance from thriving Bangkok to the worst-affected areas is less than that from most other parts of Burma. Yet none have demonstrated any meaningful will to assist in the recovery, and have so far limited themselves to token gestures.
The trivial amount of support extended to a country that is half paralyzed and facing the prospect of both famine and epidemic disease is in marked contrast to that which followed the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, the effects of which were comparable in scale to Cyclone Nargis but spread over a wider area. Then, people from affected countries were the recipients of enormous amounts of goodwill and assistance from all over the world and from within the region.
The tsunami recovery work went well beyond flying a few planeloads of supplies into the hands of waiting officials and going home. It envisaged rebuilding with a view to better preparing for similar future events. It included the giving of training and gear to build up a corpus of specialized people and equipment in Thailand and Indonesia especially.
So why haven’t these people or their stuff been sent to Burma? Perhaps the governments responsible will excuse themselves by pointing out that, among other things, there have been delays in the granting of visas for United Nations rescue coordinating staff, as the military is chary to have too many persons nosing around its country from all sorts of backgrounds and whom it can’t readily control. This not least of all as it insists upon going ahead with the charade of a constitutional referendum in most parts of the country this Saturday, including many that the storm hit.
But this is no excuse, because people coming through bilateral arrangements from the Philippines or Korea, for instance, will not encounter the same size and number of obstacles as those put before international agencies and Western prospective donors. It is exactly for this reason that these countries have such an important lead role to play; one that they have thus far disregarded.
A team of medical specialists dispatched from Beijing under government auspices would be highly unlikely to encounter the same sort of resistance that a similarly skilled and equipped team from the United States would meet. A group of Thai engineers will not find the same sorts of difficulties in getting into Burma and moving around it as a group from Paris or Brussels. And anyhow, they are only a one-hour flight away.
At a time that ASEAN is supposedly transforming itself from a security-cum-economic bloc into something more substantive, at a time that China is struggling to show itself off to the world in advance of an already embattled Olympics, at a time that India is insisting upon a seat at the U.N. Security Council as a new world power, if these countries together keep dragging their feet and fail to act energetically to help millions of people within a stone’s throw of their borders, then shame on them, and woe to everything that they falsely claim to represent.
Source: Where are Burma’s neighbours?
See further: International aid contributions, The Irrawaddy