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by Larry Jagan

Burma's Generals Snubs UN Call for Reform

(IPS) BANGKOK -- While Burma's state-run radio reports that at least 4,000 people have died and another 3,000 gone missing in the cyclone that devastated that country on Saturday, there is little that the international community can do by way of assistance without a formal request from its secretive military rulers.

However, by admitting to foreign diplomats on Monday that the death toll could be as high as 10,000, Burma's foreign minister Nyan Win may have been hinting that the generals were prepared to receive outside help.

Some 20,000 homes were destroyed on one island alone, the country's state media reported after Cyclone Nargis -- a Category 3 storm with winds up to 200 kilometres an hour -- ripped through coastal Burma early Saturday.

The former capital Rangoon and the Irrawaddy delta to the east were in the eye of the storm. The death toll was expected to climb as Burmese authorities and United Nations officials were unable to contact the islands and low-lying villages in the delta, the country's rice bowl.

"Everyone is having trouble making a quick and accurate assessment of the damage and the needs, and obviously the government is likely to be facing the same constraints," Richard Horsey, a spokesman for the regional UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) in Bangkok, told IPS.

"Communication lines are down, roads are inaccessible and it will take time to reach many of the small villages which were worst hit," Horsey said.

In Rangoon, trees were uprooted and strewn all over the roads, making it impossible to drive. Roofs of many houses and buildings were torn off and the debris littered all over the roads, according to eyewitnesses. Hospitals have been badly damaged. Telephone and power lines were cut. "It's like a war zone," said a western diplomat who wanted to remain anonymous.

Foreign aid workers are trying to assess the damage and aid needs, but their access and movements are severely restricted by the military authorities.

Any information streaming out of the country comes through the several UN agencies that have personnel on the ground in the worst-affected areas. "The most urgent needs are definitely shelter and clean water," Horsey said. "Plastic sheeting, tents, mosquito nets, cooking equipment and water-purification tablets are urgently needed."

The Red Cross said its teams are already distributing emergency supplies, including clean water and blankets in the worst-hit Irrawaddy region. But the UN's main rapid response teams are still waiting for approval from the Burmese military government.

There has been regular contact between aid workers in Rangoon and Burmese government officials since the cyclone hit Burma on Saturday and UN sources said privately that the government is likely to begin accepting aid and assistance from the international community before long.

"The indications are that the government is receptive to receiving international assistance," said Horsey. "And we expect to get a clearer indication of that soon."

The government has set up a disaster response committee in the capital of Naypitdaw under the prime minister, Gen. Thein Sein. He has already been to Rangoon to see the cyclone damage first-hand and state-run television showed footage of soldiers clearing trees from roads, and Thein Sein meeting people sheltering in a Buddhist pagoda.

Most assessments say that the damage is so extensive that the military authorities will not be able to cope. "Whereas the junta is likely to accept equipment and supplies, the top generals will be less keen to allow a whole lot of foreigners running around the county," said Win Min, an independent Burmese academic who is based in the Thai resort town of Chiang Mai.

Burmese exiles have been calling for international assistance ever since the cyclone struck. "The military regime is ill-prepared to deal with the aftermath of the cyclone," Naing Aung of the Thailand-based Forum for Democracy in Burma said in a statement published on its website.

Burma has traditionally been loath to admit to needing help from international relief organizations. Authorities refuse to allow UN organizations and international aid agencies unfettered access to rural parts of Burma and, over the past year, restrictions on international aid workers has become more rigid than ever.

"The clean-up (by the government) has begun but it will take a very long time to complete," a Rangoon-based diplomat told IPS. "The damage around town is so extensive."

According to the Irrawaddy newspaper, published by Burmese exiles in Thailand, food prices have surged after the cyclone struck. An egg now costs around 250 kyat (20 U.S. cents) in Rangoon, or about three times what it cost before Saturday, the paper said.

"The price hikes are crippling," said a Burmese economist who did not want to be identified. "People are soon going to be reduced to begging. If the government doesn't begin to act quickly the current frustration will soon boil over into anger and more street protests are almost certain to follow," he said.

"In Rangoon people feel they have lost everything and have nothing else to lose," said a young student activist reached over the phone.

In the meantime the state-run media has said that the referendum on a new constitution would go ahead as planned on May 10, despite the cyclone. "The referendum is only a few days away and the people are eagerly looking forward to voting," the government said in a statement carried by state media.

The charter is part of the junta's "roadmap to democracy" which would end in multi-party elections in 2010. But the government is not allowing public debate on the constitution. Arguments in favour of the constitution alone are permitted and local media forbidden from reporting any 'no' campaign.

"The constitution is intended to enternch the military in power. A referendum without some basic freedoms -- of assembly, political parties and free speech -- is a farce. What the Myanmar (official name for Burma) government calls a process of democratization is in fact a process of consolidation of an authoritarian regime," former UN human rights rapporteur on Burma, Prof. Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, told IPS recently.

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Albion Monitor   May 5, 2008   (

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