Putting its own survival before its people’s

By Simon Tisdall (THE GUARDIAN, 06/05/08):

Last September the Burmese people were on the streets, fighting for their political rights. Now they are on their knees, fighting for their very lives. In both cases, the main obstacle they face is the military junta that has ruled the country with merciless brutality since the 1988 coup.

Just as the pro-democracy protests last autumn were bloodily and thoughtlessly crushed, so does the regime’s paranoia, ignorance and hapless incompetence threaten to undermine or even derail international relief efforts in the wake of Cyclone Nargis. As one aid official warned today, the aftermath could prove more lethal than the storm itself.

Any government would struggle to cope with a disaster on this scale but, thanks in large part to the generals, Burma is exceptionally ill-equipped. The country still relies on infrastructure created roughly a century ago. There has been little or no investment in modern roads and railways and internal transportation of relief supplies looks likely to be a major headache.

The secretive nature of the regime, discouraging open, efficient communication, is set to be another problem as aid workers desperately try to identify the main areas of need. The junta’s failure to alert the Burmese people to the approach of the cyclone – there is no early warning system – has already drawn protests and probably exacerbated the storm’s human toll.

“This is yet another example of how the regime ignores the welfare of the people of Burma,” said Mark Farmaner, the director of Burma Campaign UK. “Instead of warning people about the potential danger, state-owned newspapers were full of propaganda telling people that they must vote for a sham constitution that will keep the military in power.”

The referendum vote has been widely dismissed by western governments as a clumsy, see-through attempt to defuse external pressure for democratic reform following last autumn’s crackdown. Having characteristically refused to recognise the size of the disaster, Burmese officials finally announced today the vote would be delayed for two weeks in worst-affected areas.

Increased access for independent NGOs, and for foreign media keen to publicise Burma’s needs, are another looming point of friction. Two days after the cyclone hit, the generals issued an unprecedented appeal for assistance. It was as if they were suddenly acknowledging they were part of the international community they have consistently shunned and rebuffed.

But the flood of offers of help from UN agencies, the US, the EU and countries such as Australia, all critics of the regime, will certainly trigger the mistrustful, fearful caution for which the country’s dictator, General Than Shwe, and his cronies are renowned.

In coming days, as the shock wears off, the junta may try to set conditions and pick and choose donor partnerships. It may prefer dealing with less judgmental China, Burma’s biggest trade partner, and the usually compliant, politically toothless Association of South-East Asian Nations. But their expertise, resources and generosity do not begin to match those of western nations.

While all these factors are expected to hamper the relief effort, Burma’s basic dilemma remains unchanged: a regime that has been at war with its people for years is now being called upon the save them.

Its reputation for cruelty, mismanagement and corruption only adds to the gaping trust deficit between oppressors and oppressed. In most countries, news that the army is being deployed to help would be welcome. In Burma, it will only increase the trauma many ordinary Burmese are experiencing.

People always looks for good out of bad, and it may be that the prising open of Fortress Burma’s gates by an advancing army of humanitarian workers will wreak a permanent, beneficial change in the country’s relations with the outside world.

Australia’s foreign minister, Stephen Smith, made the point today. Rather than use the crisis to attack the junta, the focus should be on food and other emergency aid. “The priority now is rendering assistance to thousands of people who urgently need our help,” Smith said.

But the US first lady, Laura Bush, who has become the Bush administration’s unofficial spokesperson on Burma, showed no such restraint yesterday. The US would help, she said, but only if the junta – on which Washington has imposed tough sanctions – swallowed its pride and asked for it. She also suggested the nature of the regime would hinder outside relief efforts.

“The response to the cyclone is just the most recent example of the junta’s failure to meet its people’s basic needs,” Bush said. “The regime has dismantled systems of agriculture, education and healthcare. This once wealthy nation now has the lowest per capita GDP in south-east Asia … we know already that they are very inept.”

Such overt hostility at government level is certain to put backs up in Naypyidaw, the regime’s remote capital, and is likely to be counter-productive. Indeed, the cyclone disaster may have an opposite effect to that hoped for in the west. As the urgent impulse to help fellow human beings in trouble takes over, the crisis could divert the spotlight away from junta’s feeble, self-serving efforts at political reform.

If they are allowed to, the generals will simply take what they need in the short term, then carry on dictating.