Junta must ensure relief aid reaches survivors (commentary)

Source: The Jakarta Post

[Original title: Commentary: Myanmar junta must ensure relief aid reaches survivors]

By Ati Nurbaiti

Myanmar, we are told by those who have been there, “is not a black hole of information”. Yangon is not Pyongyang. But the trickle of news that has managed to come out of the country since Saturday’s devastating cyclone has brought about anxiety regarding the disaster itself, while reaffirming the junta’s grip on the information that reaches both the outside world and its own citizens.

As of Wednesday, there was no change to an earlier statement from the regime that despite the natural disaster, a referendum on amendments to the constitution planned for Friday would go ahead — even as a private local media outlet was quoting residents as saying a few towns were virtually “gone” following the cyclone.

Travelers returning from Yangon late Monday said they received very little information on the cyclone. The state’s meteorology agency did initially send information to locals with mobile phones.

The government is now reporting some 22,000 dead and 41,000 missing in the cyclone, while opposition leaders estimate 100,000 are dead and missing, mainly in the region around Irrawaddy delta, which includes the capital.

The junta has gone out of its way to accept international aid, signaling that the situation is indeed beyond their capacity. Indonesia has pledged US$1 million worth of aid.

We cannot imagine exactly what the people of Myanmar are having to cope with. BBC reported many are spending their fourth night in the open. Soaring prices already led people to peaceful demonstrations late last year, which were met with a brutal response.

Ahead of the planned constitutional referendum came reports of tightened security, and travelers were warned not to question locals lest they be interrogated later, to say the least.

Still fresh in our minds is the tsunami that hit Indian Ocean countries, including Indonesia’s Aceh province, in December 2004, a tragedy so great that the world concentrated on how to channel aid to survivors. The war in Aceh became comparatively meaningless. Eventually, peace was achieved.

Myanmar’s cyclone, reports say, is also unprecedented in its scale and impact. This is not to say that everything else in Myanmar is meaningless.

But is now the time to talk of referendums? Just because people “are eager to vote”, as the junta says? Is now the time for observers and opposition leaders to discuss surveys on whether people will vote yes or no, as they were still doing this week?

Because the junta has said the referendum will go ahead as planned, it seems the opposition still has to address the issue.

Yet from Rangoon, or Yangon, the Democratic Voice of Burma radio and television reported “there is nothing left”. That if international aid doesn’t come soon, “there will be nothing to eat”.

For the time being there is still food and building materials, but the price of everything, from rice and eggs to nails has increased multifold. Before the cyclone a gallon of gas was 2,500 kyat (about US$2,); it is now 10,000 kyat, according to Burmese in Bangkok. They can only quietly imagine how their families were affected.

In some areas electricity has reportedly resumed, a slice of good news for the exiles, refugees, undocumented illegal workers and others on the run, who have rare contact with home.

In the weeks or months ahead, friends and neighbors of Myanmar, including the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), of which it is a member, must focus on how to prevent more casualties and alleviate the suffering as best as possible. We don’t even know the number of those injured, but then, as in the Aceh tragedy, numbers become blurred in the frantic rush to help as many as possible.

Burma watchers have mentioned Indonesia as the current source of hope to break the deadlock in attempts to bring the regime to talks, as President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has said he has started a correspondence with junta leader Gen. Than Shwe.

In the wake of this natural disaster, we can only join others in aid efforts. It is tempting to look at the situation as a God-given opportunity for Myanmar to open up, for the sake of its already impoverished citizens.

But outsiders are rightly wary of the junta’s paranoia toward foreigners, as the country’s rulers have been forced into further isolation through sanctions. We can only hope Myanmar’s leaders prioritize the urgent needs of their people, and do everything in their power to ensure aid reaches them as fast as possible.

The above article was first published by “Jakarta Post” on 8 May 2008.

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