Asia-Pacific, Development & Aid, Environment, Global, Global Geopolitics, Headlines, Human Rights | Analysis

BURMA: UN Gambles With Junta – Forgets History

Analysis by Marwaan Macan-Markar

BANGKOK, May 26 2008 (IPS) - United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is optimistic that his four-day mission to military-ruled Burma has produced a breakthrough. But the troubled history of relations between the world body and the South-east Asian nation offers a warning against high expectations.

Cyclone relief arrives in Lapputa, Irrawaddy delta, after junta lets in international aid.  Credit: Mizzima News

Cyclone relief arrives in Lapputa, Irrawaddy delta, after junta lets in international aid. Credit: Mizzima News

Ban’s views were shaped by signs that Burma’s strongman, the reclusive Senior Gen. Than Shwe, had conceded some ground to a U.N. appeal to let in more foreign assistance and experts to help the country’s cyclone victims. Significant for Ban was the 75-year-old ruler of Burma (or Myanmar) agreeing to meet him. Than Shwe had refused to take calls from the U.N. chief in the days after May 3, when Cyclone Nargis struck the Irrawaddy Delta.

‘’I have been much encouraged by my discussions with Myanmar’s authorities in recent days,’’ Ban said at a late night press conference shortly after he touched down at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport, on Sunday. ‘’Senior Gen. Than Shwe agreed to allow all international aid workers to operate freely and without hindrance.’’

‘’We agreed to establish several forward logistics hubs and to open new air, sea and road links to the most affected areas,’’ added Ban, who had earlier participated in a day-long international conference in Rangoon, Burma’s former capital, where officials from over 50 countries had gathered to pledge aid. ‘’The Myanmar government appears to be moving toward the right direction to implement these accords.’’

Ban’s breakthrough with the notoriously secretive junta is being welcomed by international humanitarian agencies like Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF- Doctors Without Borders), which has a presence in Burma but, like other relief agencies, has been denied access to most of the cyclone-hit delta.

‘’We welcome the news. Since the cyclone struck three weeks ago, MSF has been trying to get more international aid workers into the delta, particularly those with expertise in emergency situations,’’ says Jean Sebastian Matte, MSF’s emergency coordinator. ‘’Now, hopefully, MSF will be able to bring more international emergency experts into Myanmar – most urgently to the delta region, the worst-affected area.’’

The restrictions placed by the junta on aid workers travelling to the devastated terrain south-west of the country is only the latest demonstration of the oppressive grip the powerful clique of military leaders has on the country. Consequently, not only has urgently needed relief like clean water, food, medicine and shelter been denied to the survivors, but the actual human cost has also been kept out of the public eye.

Currently, estimates of the human toll range from 130,000 deaths to as high as 300,000 deaths in Burma’s worst natural disaster. The people affected by the cyclone in the delta range from 2.5 million to four million. The flat terrain over which Nargis swept, with wind speeds of 190 km per hour and carrying a wall of sea water that rose 3.5 m high, had the highest population density in the country.

But the junta’s signs of concession to the U.N. and a regional body that has reached out to help – the 10-member Association of South-east Asian Nations (ASEAN) – follow a familiar path. They came after the regime was condemned in many Western capitals for its reluctance to aid the victims, including denying foreign experts familiar with post-disaster relief operations entry into the country.

‘’They have made concessions bit by bit in the past when in trouble,’’ Aung Naing Oo, a Burmese political analyst living in exile in Thailand, told IPS. ‘’It is a way of reducing international criticism. That is what we are witnessing again. But we have to see if the promises by Than Shwe translate into reality in the next few days.’’

Late last year the junta played a similar card. That followed international condemnation of the junta for brutally crushing a peaceful pro-democracy public protest led by thousands of saffron-robed monks in September. In a sign of concession, Than Shwe agreed to meet with U.N. envoy Ibrahim Gambari.

But hope for change to a more inclusive democracy was short-lived. Once the heat was off its back, the regime dismissed Gambari’s relevance, breaking all the promises for political reform it had made to the Nigerian diplomat. And during his third visit since the crackdown, the junta’s contempt for Gambari was clear. Brig. Gen Kyaw Hsan, information minister and a close ally of Than Shwe, pitched into the U.N. envoy verbally.

Burma’s dictator has treated the six envoys from the U.N. with different mandates for change since the early 1990s in a similar manner. It begins with initial signs supportive of engagement and then takes a hostile turn, reinforcing the notion that the military has to have absolute control of the country, with no exceptions.

This has also been true when there is no U.N. involvement, too. In August 2003, Gen. Khin Nyunt was appointed prime minister and soon revealed plans for the junta’s seven-point roadmap to democracy. It followed international outrage from the West and even in South-east Asia for the attack on and subsequent detention of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

But Suu Kyi remains under house arrest, marking over 12 years that the Nobel Peace laureate has been kept in isolation. And the promised new constitution, as part of the roadmap, is flawed. Its final draft has sought to perpetuate the junta’s power.

Even the referendum held this month to approve the charter barely provided any space for dissenting views and the threat of a jail sentence hung in the air for those who wanted to campaign against it. Reports of alleged rigging and the junta’s domination of the electoral process also enabled the regime to proclaim that 92.4 percent of the voters had supported it.

‘’This regime always goes for what they think they can get away with when there is pressure,’’ Debbie Stothard of ALTSEAN, a regional human rights lobby, told IPS. ‘’The U.N. should not be allowed to fall into the trap of lowering the bar of expectations. This is what the regime wants.’’

Republish | | Print |

achieve read and practice