Burma has at long last agreed to allow foreign medical workers into the country to help the victims of the devastating cyclone that hit the Irrawaddy Delta region and the main city of Rangoon on May 2 - but with a catch. Setting conditions that fall short of what the international community, including the United Nations and its various agencies, had requested, the ruling military junta insists that the foreign medics and other aid workers come from neighbouring countries.
Singapore’s Foreign Minister George Yeo announced the decision after a meeting with the Association of South-East Asian Nations, or ASEAN, of which Burma is a member. ASEAN will also serve as a “bridge” between international agencies and the worst-affected areas of southern Burma.
It’s unclear how this effort will be co-ordinated, especially given the magnitude of the disaster. According to the United Nations, 2.4 million people have lost their homes or planted rice fields. Experts at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Public Health, based on their own research, said as many as 3.2 million Burmese have been affected.
More than 40 per cent of those affected are children - that in a region where young people already suffer from malnutrition. Drinking water is in short supply as most sources have been contaminated by decomposing corpses. Entire villages have been wiped out with hardly a building standing - except for the Buddhist temples, usually built from stronger material than ordinary, wooden houses. Crops have been destroyed by saltwater seeping into the fields, which could have a devastating long-term impact on the country’s food supply.
The situation in Burma today is comparable only to what happened in Aceh, Indonesia, after the December 2004 tsunami, and clearly requires more extensive international effort than what the military rulers of Burma have accepted.
Behind their reluctance to admit foreigners lies the main fear: to lose control and, ultimately, power. Burma’s partners in ASEAN are seen as no threat, but the regime is loath to allow aid providers from Western countries, which have been sharply critical of the military regime.
Unfortunately for Burmese victims, only the Western countries have the capacity of response matching the magnitude of the crisis. The US amphibious assault ship USS Essex, is moored 60 nautical miles off Burma’s southern coast, while the French naval ship Le Mistral waits in the same waters. Tens of thousands of gallons of drinking water, ambulances, heavy trucks and medical teams could reach Burma within an hour by helicopters and landing craft from the USS Essex. Le Mistral carries a cargo of 1,000 tons of food, enough to feed at least 100,000 people for two weeks, as well as thousands of shelters for the homeless.
Burma’s reclusive government is unlikely to allow those ships to carry out their missions. If foreign troops - which must oversee the distribution of the supplies - entered Burma, their presence could embolden the country’s citizens to launch another uprising against the regime.
Ordinary Burmese are already angered because of the bloody crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrations led by Buddhist monks in September 2007. If anti-government activists thought they could count on foreign protection - even if the foreign troops were in Burma on a purely humanitarian mission - they could take to the streets again.
Whatever sympathy there might have been for the country’s military junta has dwindled in the wake of the cyclone. The generals must be aware of this - worrying more about their future now than they had eight months ago. Hence, troops from foreign countries that have criticised the regime and expressed support for Burma’s pro-democracy movement must be kept out at all cost, no matter how much food and medicine they could supply.
Similar concern about the regime’s stability has led the military to try keeping the country’s Buddhist clergy from participating in relief efforts, fearing a renewed alliance between the monks and population at large.
Much depends therefore on what happens when the ASEAN teams arrive on the scene. India has also pledged to send medics, if needed, and more than 60 Chinese doctors reportedly wait across the border in Yunnan for permission to travel to the affected areas. So even without Western participation, it will be the biggest foreign intervention in Burma since independence from Britain in 1948. And even if the teams are made up of “friendly neighbours”, leery of interfering in the internal affairs of Burma, the generals risk losing control of the situation - which in the long run, could undermine their grip on power.
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