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BURMA: Worst Ever Response To A Disaster

Asian Human Rights Commission 

The response of the Burmese regime to the disaster following Cyclone Nargis—which hit the country on May 2 this year—is now acknowledged to be the world’s worst ever response to a disaster by any state or regime.

The Burmese generals, including Senior General Than Shwe, were found to be deliberately avoiding contact with world leaders and other organisations who wanted to assist the two and half million people in Burma who are in dire need of water, basic food and healthcare. When some world leaders tried to reach General Than Shwe by telephone, reportedly, the calls were not answered.

The world must now come to grips with the situation in which the leaders of a regime think that even providing basic materials for survival such as water, food and medicine is a threat to their power. Can world opinion and the political will of the rest of the world defeat this completely irresponsible and immoral action of such a regime?

The most conservative estimates of the death toll so far is between 80,000 to 130,000 persons. But the cost in human lives on such a large scale seems or no concern to these leaders.

For many decades the world has met the obstinate resistance of the Burmese regime on all matters that relate to the wellbeing of its people. The regime has set itself so completely against the people in such a comprehensive manner that perhaps there are very few examples of such behaviour in the history of the modern world. Certainly the reaction to this present disaster is the worst ever.

The world’s displeasure expressed at the highest levels does not however seem to make an impression on the Burmese military leadership. This is no surprise. Since 1962, when General Ne Win seized power, the country has been pushed into isolation, mainly as a strategy of safeguarding his political power.

His 26 year rule, under what he called the Burmese way of socialism, was a style of absolutely ruthless dictatorship which left no space for the people or for a system of governance based on law. The country was brought under the all-comprehensive surveillance of a policing system which merely served to preserve the political power of the regime.

In Burma this regime achieved near-complete disempowerment of the people. This was no easy task as
the Burmese people, over and over again, tried to resist the dictatorship and assert themselves, even to the extent of defeating the military electorally in 1988. However, the military did not allow the slightest reforms but instead allowed the social organisation of the country to collapse.

General Ne Win died in 1991 but the style of his rule which consisted of two strategies, one of which was to completely disregard what happens to the people and the other being to isolate the country from outside pressures, despite of whatever it might cost the nation, has continued.

But the question is: How will the rest of the world, including the ASEAN countries, India, China and others face this tremendous political and moral challenge? Will the world just watch another humanitarian disaster of the worst magnitude take its toll on the people of Burma?

A decisive strategy is now needed either to persuade the generals to give access to assistance by aid agencies or to coerce these leaders to do so.

Total Dead 77,700
63,000 to
GOB* - May 16, 2008
OCHA*(1) - May 9, 2008
Total Missing 55,900 GOB - May 16, 2008
Estimated Displaced Persons in Settlements 110,000 OCHA - May 22, 2008
Total Number Affected 2.4 million OCHA - May 29, 2008

*Gov't of Burma
*UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs

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