As predicted, survivors of Cyclone Nargis, which ravaged lower Burma on May 2 and 3, are no longer surviving.
Not only in the worst-hit delta areas but also in places close to Rangoon people are suffering from illnesses brought on by dirty water, lack of food and exposure to the elements. On Wednesday, a resident speaking to the Voice of America Burmese Service described the situation:
“In Thanlyin, 43-year-old Ko Aung Kyaw Moe died from cholera, as did a small girl in another village on the ninth. She was in the morgue. Also in Twente, I heard it of two girls. Then in Hpayagyigone village of Thanlyin an entire family of five died. And there’s around seven or eight sick people in the hospital.”
This account may or may not be fully accurate, but it is anyhow backed by many other similar reports from the disaster zones. Together they affirm that people are today dying of what can only be described as the most preventable of deaths — deaths due not to a lack of knowhow, resources or concern, but to an excess of obduracy in a military regime with a record of unremitting and shameless disregard for basic human rights and absolute minimum universal standards.
Under international law, the right to clean drinking water, a decent place to stay and adequate food fall into a special domain that places both positive and negative duties upon governments. What this means is that states must do some things but not others to make sure these rights are upheld.
More specifically, in trade jargon, states are obliged to respect, protect and fulfill fundamental rights. What these three requirements entail, in reverse order, is that authorities must assist people who cannot provide for themselves, must defend the vulnerable from others who may undermine their ability to do so, and at the very least must not do anything to cause people to go hungry, thirsty or homeless.
Often, the problems lie in getting governments to do things that they have not, perhaps because of a lack of money or people, a lack of interest, or maybe because of discriminatory policies. But in certain circumstances, such as those in Burma today, the problem may lie more in getting a government to do nothing at all.
People living in Burma are largely self-reliant. They have to be. By modern standards they generally expect very little of their administrators, and are satisfied if left alone to get by as best they can. Unfortunately, it rarely happens that they are unimpeded, and people who are already hard pressed to meet their own needs are often called upon to contribute to those of the state. Protecting and fulfilling fundamental rights have never been among the regime’s strong points.
Still, never has it sunk so far in its blatant disrespect for the lives and wellbeing of its reluctant subjects than in the past week. Its audacious blockading of cyclone-stricken areas to proffered vital relief, especially technical assistance, far surpasses any of its former acts of self-interested unkindness. Its shabby treatment of United Nations agencies and other reputed international bodies at the cost of its own citizens’ lives has shocked even those used to dealing with it and its agents, as well as those used to hearing of its more routine excesses.
The government’s behavior is also coming as a shock to its own people. In a broadcast on the exile Democratic Voice of Burma radio, a crowd of outraged townsfolk in Laputta this week shouted and cried with palpable anger that approaching two weeks on from the cyclone there are still dead bodies floating in canals, that they have been told to leave shelters and go back to homes that no longer exist, and that they have seen aid being delivered but have not themselves received one iota of it.
The exact number of dead from Cyclone Nargis will never be known. It claimed just too many victims across too wide an area of too disorganized a country for anyone to ever be able to calculate it with certainty. But what can be said with 100 percent certainty is that the number tomorrow will be higher than it was today. And the number next week will be far higher still if, one way or another, help doesn’t get through to those who are in grave danger of dying preventable deaths.
The consequences of doing nothing, or of being unable to do anything, are for the cyclone’s immediate victims clear enough. The dramatic and lasting damage that will be caused to their entire country and its already battered economy can also be foreseen. But beyond these, the effects on the whole world, particularly its disaster relief and human rights movements, should be of special concern.
Failure to address this disaster effectively will establish a monstrous precedent with lasting unwelcome results not only for the people of Burma but for everyone, everywhere. It will be a massive political, legal and humanitarian defeat for us all, but above all, a moral defeat from which it will not be easy to recover. For the sake of Nargis’s victims, their fellow countrymen and women, and for the sake of each and every one of us, this cannot be allowed to happen.