Burma’s military government has by now dramatically compounded the death and misery brought to its country with Cyclone Nargis. While carrying on with the same sort of games it has played against the global community for years, it has caused untold needless loss of life and greatly magnified people’s suffering today and tomorrow.
The regime has failed to open the door to sufficient foreign aid for the millions who need help. Its agents, whether under orders or of their own accord, have also obstructed local and overseas efforts to deliver relief and have misdirected their energies at futile exercises like the holding of the May 10 constitutional referendum and the arrests of state officers accused of not staying at their posts throughout the havoc of that day.
The authorities have been scrambling to get back on top and at least give the appearance of being in control. Once they’ve obtained a semblance of normalcy and official behavior becomes a little more coherent, human rights abuses directed against storm refugees and people in nearby areas especially will increase.
To begin with, the emptying out of afflicted coastal regions could become a permanent feature of Burma’s map. Entire villages and their populaces have been swept away; with them have gone council offices and registrars containing records of land titles and other important documents. Whole islands are now all but deserted, the survivors moved elsewhere or concentrated in isolated temporary camps.
There have been no public announcements about what will happen to those who have been relocated, but as in Burma all land is technically state property and as its uncompensated seizure is commonplace, military and civilian officials will be eyeing these areas with a view to something other than simply letting villagers back to rebuild.
Where rebuilding does go on, it is likely to be accompanied by a dramatic increase in demands on the citizenry to pitch in. There is a lot that needs to be done. Who will do it? Not international agencies. They won’t get free rein. Not domestic businesses and joint ventures. They are promoting themselves as do-good donors because of lucrative contracts to construct things like government schools and hospitals. The remaking of small bridges and canals, digging of ditches and repaving of side roads is going to fall to the locals.
Although the International Labour Organisation has reduced the use of forced labor in Burma, even in normal times the practice is still widespread. Its national office will have its work cut out in the coming months, as town and village authorities increasingly slip back into old habits and give their constituents orders to turn up at 6:00 a.m., one person per household, with tools and the time needed to reinforce an embankment or byway.
The increased demands on people’s hours will be accompanied by more on their pockets too. The levying and collecting of tax in Burma is ordinarily haphazard. Officials will both be obliged and emboldened to seek more money and stuff from more people more often. Already there are reports that traders have had goods confiscated in the name of cyclone victims, and that villagers have had to give increasingly large amounts for basic services. As the cash crisis hits home, petty bureaucrats and security forces will shift their shortfalls onto the ordinary folk underneath them, who are already suffering from galloping price increases and severe unemployment.
Other routine human rights abuses are equally likely to grow in number during the rest of the year and into the next. There was a story this week that children orphaned due to the cyclone had been picked up and taken away in army trucks, ostensibly for special care. Elsewhere government thugs beat back angry crowds of people who had seen but not received emergency supplies. Such incidents will readily multiply.
Although it is impossible at this time to know precisely what will occur in the coming weeks and months, it is clear that the people of the delta are not going to get the amount of help they need as soon as they need it, if ever. Hundreds of thousands are weakened and in desperate straits. The government having treated them with a greater amount of enmity than sympathy will need to use its many coercive methods to keep them where and how it wants them to be, or at least, to prevent them from getting to wherever and however it doesn’t want them to be.
The displaced, hungry, sick and homeless are not going to be able to organize and protect themselves from the inequities of officialdom as usual. They have lost their livelihoods, houses, families, contacts and their ordinary means of survival and self-defense. They are going to need the special interest not only of humanitarian groups but also human rights defenders and bodies at home and abroad throughout this period of heightened risk.
Rights advocates, journalists and specialized agencies need to ready themselves now to respond to the wave of abuses that are sure to follow this emergency period, and make sure that they have the money, people, means and mentality to react quickly and effectively to reports of incidents as soon as they arise, for arise they shall.