The junta's attempt to keep this Southeast Asian country's worst natural disaster from the public eye is part of a strategy that has become painfully clear during the 10 days since the cyclone struck. The regime in Burma, also called Myanmar, wants to give the impression locally and internationally that it has the relief efforts under control.
Its interaction with the UN officials in Rangoon, the former capital, has set the tone. Till May 9, the junta had not made a formal or informal request for UN assistance, a highly-placed source in the dilapidated city said in an interview. "They have still remained aloof.'
In fact, assistance by UN agencies in Burma thus far has been shaped by the latter's initiative. "The UN has been offering assistance -- even battling to provide it -- and they accept it in bits and pieces,' the source added.
Any hope that UN officials harbored of a change in attitude were dashed a press conference given by three ministers on Sunday dashed. This trio, which included Social Welfare Minister Gen. Maung Maung Swe, informed the media that the Burmese government was "in control of the situation,' and that thanks to the government's response "nobody has died except as a direct result of the cyclone' and that it was "grateful for the international aid provided."
"Myanmar is pleased to receive assistance, but distribution is to be done by the government and foreigners are not allowed in affected areas,' Gen. Maung Maung Swe had said. "If you want to visit, write to us; we will consider on a case-by- case basis and go together at the appropriate time."
No wonder the UN's exasperation, at what some describe as the junta's "negligence on a criminal scale,' was on full display on Monday at the world body's headquarters in New York. "I want to register my deep concern -- and immense frustration -- at the unacceptably slow response to this grave humanitarian crisis,' UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon said at a press conference. "I therefore call, in the most strenuous terms, on the Government of Myanmar to put its people's lives first. It must do all that it can to prevent this disaster from becoming even more serious.'
Ban also used the conference to echo the view of many international relief agencies gathered in Bangkok who are having difficulty getting their staff trained in emergency operations into the delta because of Burma's visa restrictions. "They, too, need greater access and freedom of movement,' he said.
But the junta shot down the call barely hours after it was made. "The nation does not need skilled relief workers yet,' a senior junta official was reported to have said in Tuesday's edition of the 'New Light of Myanmar,' a mouthpiece of the junta.
In doing so, the regime reaffirmed the kind of assistance it is receptive to -- cash donations or aid in kind given directly to the generals in power. Typical of such assistance was the aid rushed to Burma by its giant western neighbor, India.
A week after the cyclone struck, New Delhi sent two Indian navy ships -- INS Rana and INS Kirpan -- loaded with immediate relief and medical supplies. Four Indian airforce planes -- two AN-32s and two IL-76s -- loaded with tents, medicine and roofing material also made deliveries. India's assistance was received in Rangoon by Foreign Minister Nyan Win and Social Welfare Minister Gen. Maung Maung Swe.
Similar government-to-government aid efforts have been carried out by Burma's neighbors Thailand and China and its regional neighbors, such as Singapore. Some smaller Asian countries have given the junta cash.
"This way there are no impediments, there is no confusion,' a diplomat from a developing country told IPS. "Most developing countries prefer it this way.'
Yet such aid, while welcome, is barely a trickle compared to what the cyclone-torn country needs. It has also failed to win support from some international humanitarian agencies and Burmese living in the country and in exile. The military regime, they say, is not equipped to handle a disaster of such monumental scale. What is more, there is emerging evidence that the junta is misusing the aid, they add.
And the likelihood of the junta changing its ways appears remote if the behavior of the country's strongman, the reclusive Senior Gen. Than Shwe is any indicator. So far, he has refused to take any calls from the UN Secretary General.
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Albion Monitor May
13, 2008 (http://www.albionmonitor.com)
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