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Saving Myanmar

Author: Jayshree Bajoria
Updated: May 15, 2008

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As the death toll from the May 3 cyclone in Myanmar continues to rise—official state media list more than 30,000 dead and 35,000 missing—international relief agencies are expressing grave concern over delays in aid efforts. “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 on May 12. Relief agencies like Oxfam International warn of a public health catastrophe endangering 1.5 million lives if aid doesn’t reach victims soon.

Despite warnings of a worsening humanitarian crisis, Myanmar's junta pressed ahead with a referendum on a much criticized constitution and announced on May 15 that it had been approved by 92.4 percent (AP) of the country's eligible voters. The charter guarantees a quarter of the parliamenty seats to the military and bars Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, detained leader of the country's pro-democracy movement, from public office.

The junta invites further international criticism as it allows some aid to trickle in, but continues to limit access to foreign relief workers. News reports suggest the military regime has been insisting on distributing (WSJ) the aid itself, in some cases even sticking army labels on supplies to suggest the goods are from Myanmar’s government. Relief organizations have also alleged that the military is stealing (NYT) some of the aid coming into the country. CFR’s Laurie Garrett says if the regime continues to insist on receiving supplies without the expertise to distribute them, “the death toll is going to exceed anything that we have ever seen in an Asian nation in the last thirty, forty years.”

Infrastructure problems such as a decrepit airport, poorly equipped ports, and blocked roads compound the challenges. The United States, which set up a task force to coordinate aid efforts soon after the cyclone hit, has military assets on standby, ready to respond if Myanmar’s junta allows them in. A U.S. naval strike group including four navy ships, twenty-three helicopters, and 1,800 marines, also waits in international waters off Myanmar’s coast. Aboard one of these ships, U.S. Marine Col. John Mayer, commanding officer of the thirty-first marine expeditionary unit, told NPR that U.S. forces are equipped to provide medical support, get into remote areas to deliver aid, and turn saltwater to freshwater. Adm. Timothy J. Keating, commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific, met with the commander in chief of Myanmar’s navy on May 12 in the highest-level bilateral talks (LAT) in years. Keating pressed for greater access, but the junta has yet to relent.

Myanmar’s junta is wary of Western governments, which have called for democratic reform in the past, and some experts say recent U.S. statements have heightened this suspicion. Even as U.S. President George W. Bush offered aid to Myanmar, he called for a free society in the cyclone-ravaged country. Neighboring India and China, by contrast, refrain from lecturing the country on human rights and retain access to Myanmar’s vast natural resources and oil. But a natural disaster on its own territory this week may limit China’s capabilities to help the people of Myanmar and has put further strain on relief resources in the region.

China, along with Russia and South Africa, opposed (Australia News Network) French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner’s suggestion that the UN Security Council invoke the doctrine of the “responsibility to protect” civilians as the basis for a resolution to allow the delivery of international aid without the junta’s permission (IHT). CFR Senior Fellow Paul Stares and Ivo Daalder of the Brookings Institution, writing in the Boston Globe, press the United States and Britain to join the French government to introduce the resolution in the UN Security Council. “If the international community fumbles this, it will not only confirm the hollowness of its commitment to the principle, but accelerate the increasing irrelevance of the United Nations,” they write.

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