Tag Archives: Indonesia

Nargis can’t be exaggerated

Among the many responses to the unconscionable blockading of humanitarian assistance to victims of the cyclone that swept through Burma on May 10, perhaps the strangest, if not the most offensive, have been claims that journalists, diplomats and aid workers have exaggerated the death toll.

These sorts of charges invariably come up when large numbers of people are killed, disappeared or displaced. They have their origins sometimes in misunderstanding of what really goes on during crises of this sort, sometimes in enmity towards human rights or humanitarian goals. In any case, that they have come up again in the wretched aftermath of Cyclone Nargis is particularly odd.

Take an article that David Rieff wrote for the Los Angeles Times (Save us from the rescuers, May 18). For Rieff, exaggerated reports are all about numbers. And not just high numbers for that matter, but pretty much any numbers. If the numbers jump up suddenly, he reasons, they’re suspect. But even if they don’t, they’re still suspect, because those who make them up are prone to hyperbole and have vested interests.

What Rieff omits is that those ultimately responsible for the making of numbers, those who are most prone to hyperbole and those with the biggest vested interests are not the relief agencies against whom he rails or their proponents but the national authorities who obstruct the making of accurate tallies with which to obtain a better picture of what needs to be done. Continue reading

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Where are Burma’s neighbours?

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. Continue reading

The anatomy of thuggery

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When a group of Buddhist monks in Pakokku, upper Burma, a fortnight ago joined public protests against drastic increases in nationwide fuel prices, they were met with shocking violence. At least three suffered injuries; one is rumored to have died.

Afterwards, some decided to go after the ringleaders of the gang responsible for the assault. They knew exactly which shops and houses to visit. There was no secret about who was involved. Like everywhere else in the country, the gang leaders are locally known and established.

Want to get a gang together on short notice in downtown Rangoon? Just call up the nearest township leader. Where? Let’s say Bahan. There it’s U Min Htun, a 45-year-old trader residing in 38th Street. Or try his deputy, U Naing Tint Khaing, who can be reached at his office. How about Mayangone? Ironically, the person in charge there, U Soe Aung, is a law student. Need someone in Hlaing? Kyauktada? Sanchaung? No problem: names, phone numbers and other details are all available on lists that have been compiled and kept by township councils, with orders and training from above.

But while the identities of the people managing and deploying the thugs that have for the last month been photographed and videotaped beating people to the ground before dragging them to waiting Dyna light trucks are not a mystery to anyone in Burma, among foreign correspondents and others abroad there remains some misunderstanding.

Continue reading