Burma’s Suffering: Will a Horrific Tragedy Become a Change-Forcing Event?

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By Richard Cronin – Tragedies brought about by natural disasters sometimes become powerful forces for change in countries marked by political strife and repression.  Cyclone Nargis, a powerful topical storm that inundated the Irrawaddy River Delta region of Burma on May 3, could mark the beginning of the end for a military regime that has brutally misgoverned one of the world’s poorest countries, which they call Myanmar, for almost two decades.

The December 26, 2004, Indian Ocean tsunami that swept across Indonesia’s conflict-ridden province of Aceh provides a positive example of how a terrible natural disaster can bring about reconciliation and positive political change.  The scale of devastation was such that both the Indonesian government and the GAM rebels put relief and recovery ahead of politics, welcomed massive US and other international assistance, and subsequently concluded a peace accord that ended a bitter and seemingly irresolvable civil conflict.

The Aceh example clearly is not in the minds of General Than Shwe and his junta colleagues despite upwards of 100,000 killed and 1.5 million still without adequate water, food, shelter, or medical supplies more than a week after the cyclone struck.  Instead of bending all efforts to provide critically needed relief the junta gave priority to forcing citizens in all but the most stricken areas to participate in farcical May 10 referendum on a new constitution that is intended to extend its rule indefinitely.

The political consequences of a catastrophic cyclone that devastated then East Pakistan on November 12, 1970 may provide a closer parallel to the situation in Burma.  The most powerful storm ever to strike what was then the eastern wing of a geographically divided Pakistan, cyclone Bhola  killed upwards of one half million ethnic Bengalis and left 4-5 million homeless.  As in the current situation in Burma, an already loathed military regime reacted with callous indifference and utterly failed to provide effective relief, making a man-made disaster out of a natural one.

In the East Pakistan case the military regime paid a huge political price for its indifference and mishandling of the relief effort when a pro-autonomy party swept the East wing in a national election held a month after waters receded.  Ironically, the election had been scheduled well before the cyclone as a means of national reconciliation following unprecedented political demonstrations against military rule in both wings the year before.  A brutal crackdown on riots that ensued after Pakistan’s military president blocked the leader of the victorious ethnic-Bengali party from becoming the prime minister led to intervention by the Indian Army and the creation of the new independent state of Bangladesh.

With Burmese citizens left largely to fend for themselves, civil society could grow more cohesive, self-confident, and bold.  Perhaps with this in mind, army units in some areas reportedly have forbidden well-to-do Burmese citizens to provide private relief assistance and have seized relief-destined rice and other desperately needed supplies for their own consumption

For the country’s neighbors in the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), putting pressure on the regime is no longer a diplomatic choice but a matter of both humanitarian obligation and compelling national self-interest.  The new ASEAN Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan quickly overcame the organization’s “non-interference” principle to publicly urge the junta to grant immediate access to international relief teams. Thus far, pleas by Surin and several ASEAN political leaders and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon have had little apparent effect.

China, the junta’s main source of foreign support, finds itself in a particularly difficult position.  Given their alarm about rising anti-China feeling in Tibet and international calls to boycott the Beijing Olympics, Chinese leaders must be publicly circumspect about any criticism of the junta even while privately urging dialogue with the democratic opposition. Moreover, China is unable to provide timely and meaningful logistical assistance for reasons of geography and insufficient capability, which has been compounded by the urgent need to respond to the massive earthquake which struck Sichuan Province on May 12.

The Bush administration’s effort to provide disaster assistance got off to a bad start when First Lady Laura Bush, at a May 5 press conference, lambasted the junta for allegedly failing to provide timely warning of the approaching storm and called it “a friendless regime” that “should step aside.” These remarks were widely criticized as unwise and counterproductive, not only by US friends and allies in the region, but also by some Burmese democracy activists.

The administration now has adopted a softer and wiser approach, and has moved military units and relief supplies into the region to provide, if allowed, the kind of large scale logistical aid that only the United States can supply.  US officials are mainly leaving it to neighboring countries and international organizations to keep pressure on the regime to allow American and western aid deliveries.

As for its future political consequences, the crisis will find its own course.  All that matters at the moment is for foreign countries, NGOs and other providers of international disaster assistance to provide as much assistance as possible to the increasingly desperate survivors.


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