The Perfect Storm

17 May 2008

By Aung Zaw
[Source - Irrawaddy]

A friend of mine in Rangoon called me this morning. “It’s depressing and upsetting—people in the delta region are desperately scavenging for food and aid,” he said, having just returned from a charity mission to the devastated area.

But he added: “The survivors are coping as best they can. They are very resilient and are putting their own lives back together. They haven’t lost their dignity.”

I was relieved to know that in spite of all the heartbreaking reports and horrific images coming out of Burma, the only one who had lost his dignity was Snr-Gen Than Shwe.

In spite of the woefully slow response from the Burmese military authorities—and the heartless blockade and misappropriation of aid and supplies—the people of the delta are taking matters into their own hands, standing strong, taking care of each other, determined to survive.

The generals are unyielding; the United Nations pathetic.

John Holmes, the UN’s under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs, whimpered: “The biggest problem we have at the moment is that international humanitarian staff are not being allowed down into the affected area in the delta.”


On Wednesday, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon held an emergency meeting with select countries, including Asean, India and the five permanent members of Security Council.

Briefing the media afterward outside the UN headquarters in New York, Ban said, “There was some concern expressed that, while this will be a humanitarian crisis, if we are not able to address this issue in a proper way—reaching those people in need—then it may create inevitably some kind of political issue. Therefore, we need to be careful about that.”

The UN, by nature, is careful—often timid in its language—and takes a gentle diplomatic approach to each of its myriad concerns. It has no intention of picking a fight with Burma’s generals. Ambassador after ambassador at the UN emphasized that they didn’t want to politicize the issue.

That’s why, to me, this humanitarian crisis has now become a man-made disaster.

Than Shwe and his clique have failed in every regard—to issue cyclone warnings, to plan an evacuation, to allow aid workers and supplies in, even to the point of stealing the food and water marked for those victims who are dying without it.

Then he turned his back on the horror in the delta and stole the referendum as well.

Rightly so, Than Shwe is now accused of committing crimes against humanity.

Like it or not, this crisis is a political issue and the UN has failed again to grasp its own impotence.

The UN huffs and puffs and “ums” and “ahs” as warships containing hundreds of tons of aid sit unsolicited in international waters, not a day’s sail from the delta. It sits on the fence while its leading members cry out for humanitarian intervention.

With the United Nations apparently unable to move, the spotlight again turns to Than Shwe and his diplomatic chess game.

After declaring a massive turnout and a victory in the referendum, the former psychological warfare officer is now preparing to go on the offensive.

In approving visas for aid workers from Bangladesh, China, India and Thailand, Than Shwe shows he plans to again hide behind his neighbors and allies.

“Even though Burma’s military regime is denying aid to 2 million people facing death, efforts at the UN Security Council to invoke the ‘Responsibility to Protect’ doctrine are dead as a doornail, mainly because of Burma’s ally, China,” said Aung Din, Executive Director of the US Campaign for Burma.

“It is time for countries to stop waiting for the [UN Security] Council to act—which it won’t—and commence immediate delivery of aid to thirsty, starving and homeless Burmese now facing imminent threat of disease in the Irrawaddy Delta,” he pleaded.

But Than Shwe is—if nothing else—consistent. He will not buckle, nor see the light or the error of his ways. He will continue regardless, callous and deceitful as always.

Meanwhile, the so-called civilized world will keep on talking, “moving the process forward,” expressing their concerns and deep frustration.

Thankfully, the brave people in the Irrawaddy delta are not procrastinators by nature. They are survivors. And their dignity will not allow them to sit back and wait while their leaders and the rest of the world abandon them.

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