With the utmost ill grace, Burma's military despots are at last allowing the outside world to aid the millions of Burmese people still in peril after the cyclone that claimed more than 100,000 lives. But late last week, while grudgingly issuing visas for international relief workers, the ruling junta vented its spleen by using a state-owned newspaper to complain that foreign aid was paltry and that, anyway, it was not needed.
People in the Irawaddy Delta, hardest hit by the cyclone, could survive on "fresh vegetables that grow wild in the fields and on protein-rich fish from the rivers," said the government newspaper Myanma Ahlin. The Associated Press reported that the newspaper also falsely claimed that international donors were sending chocolate bars when, in fact, the U.N. World Food Program is providing ready-to-eat rice and beans and high-energy biscuits.
The AP has also reported that the military regime is compounding the suffering of survivors, forcing them to leave shelters and return to flooded, collapsed homes and conscripting some of them to labor on government reconstruction projects. Eyewitnesses tell of beggars lining highways, waterways littered with bloated carcasses and corpses and say aid is still being delayed by troops who stop and detain Burmese volunteers and impound their cars to prevent them reaching survivors.
It is crystal clear that the military has one overriding objective and that is to ensure it retains absolute power. Despite the pressing need to concentrate government efforts on saving lives, the junta went ahead with a constitutional referendum in the midst of the tragedy. The official result was a ludicrous claim that there was a turnout of 98.1 percent with 92.5 percent in favor of a so-called "roadmap to democracy" that is supposed to culminate in elections in 2010. This is widely viewed as a plan to perpetuate the military in power. The military went on to make a mockery of any pretense to be restoring democracy by extending the house arrest of Nobel Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, the most popular politician in the country. The new constitution bars her from ever holding political office.
The call by French Foreign Secretary Bernard Kouchner to invoke the doctrine known as "responsibility to protect," may have helped to persuade the military to allow international relief agencies into Burma. The concept was introduced by the United Nations in 2005 when the international community expressed its shame over its failure to halt the Rwanda genocide. The doctrine, which would authorize U.N. intervention, was adopted with armed conflicts in mind and could not be applied to Burma in the present circumstances. But the reference seems to have put a scare into the military.
International pressure should be kept up to ease the suffering of the Burmese people, which is inflicted not only by a natural disaster, but also by the nation's despotic military.
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