Aid pries Myanmar's closed door By Richard P 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 tropical storm that inundated the Irrawaddy River Delta
region of Myanmar on May 2 and 3, could mark the beginning of the end for a
military regime that has brutally misgoverned one of the world's poorest
countries for almost two decades.
The December 26, 2004, tsunami that swept across Indonesia's conflict-ridden
province of Aceh provides the best recent 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
Merdeka (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 Senior General Than Shwe and
his junta colleagues, despite more than 150,000 killed or missing and more than
two weeks after the cyclone struck upward of 2 million still without adequate
water, food, shelter, or medical supplies. 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 current
situation in Myanmar. The most powerful storm ever to strike what was then the
eastern wing of a geographically divided Pakistan, Cyclone Bhola killed upwards
of half a million ethnic Bengalis and left between 4 and 5 million homeless. As
in the current situation in Myanmar, an already loathed military regime reacted
with callous indifference and utterly failed to provide effective relief,
making a manmade 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 the waters
receded. Ironically, the election had been scheduled well before the cyclone as
a means of national reconciliation following unprecedented political
demonstrations calling for an end to military rule and the restoration of
constitutional government 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 course, no one expects Myanmar's junta to be so hard-pressed or so foolish
as to hold another election any time soon like the one whose results they
disallowed in 1990. But with Myanmar's 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 Myanmar citizens to provide private relief assistance and have
seized relief-destined rice and other desperately needed supplies for their own
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.
Unfortunately, pleas by Surin and several ASEAN political leaders, as well as
the United Nations secretary general Ban Ki-moon, had little apparent effect
until May 19, when the government agreed to allow foreign assistance to be
delivered on the ground by relief workers from ASEAN on a case-by-case basis.
China, the junta's main source of foreign support, finds itself in a
particularly difficult position. Given their alarm about rising anti-China
sentiment in Tibet and international calls to boycott the Beijing Summer
Olympic Games in August, 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 on May 12 which struck its southwestern Sichuan province.
The George W 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".
The circumstances of the First Lady's Oval Office briefing have been the
subject of curiosity and her 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 soon 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 US can supply. US officials
were mainly leaving it to neighboring countries and international organizations
to keep pressure on the regime to allow US and Western aid deliveries, though
the senior US diplomat in Myanmar, charge d'affaires Shari Villarosa, has kept
up a running commentary with the media on the dire nature of the situation and
the urgent need for large scale international assistance.
As of May 19, some 31 US C-130 military transports had landed with emergency
supplies in Yangon, Myanmar's old capital city. Though only half of the 90 tons
of relief supplies that US forces are capable of delivering daily has been
allowed to land, the situation is already unprecedented. On the other hand, US,
French, and other international naval transport ships on stand by in the region
have not been allowed to deliver their life-saving cargoes to the riverine
parts of the disaster-hit delta that are inaccessible by road.
As for its future political consequences, the crisis will find its own course.
All that matters at the moment is for foreign countries, non-governmental
organizations, and other providers of international disaster assistance to
provide as much aid as possible to the increasingly desperate survivors. After
so many years of iron-fisted military rule, observers so far see no sign of any
popular reaction besides the desperation to survive. Still, the country has
become more open to outside intervention than at any time since the beginning
of military rule more than four decades ago.
The cracks continue to widen in light of the new role being accorded to ASEAN
and the vast remaining needs for relief, including seed for a new rice crop.
Even Than Shwe has, in the words of one diplomat, "come out of his lair" in his
remote new capital at Naypyidaw to make a show of handing over relief supplies
in Yangon, albeit two weeks after the disaster first hit. Whatever else can be
said, the facade of this Potemkin country has been swept away by the cyclone
and the ugly reality is there for all to see.
Dr Richard P Cronin ([email protected]) is a senior associate at
the Henry L Stimson Center and head of the Southeast Asia Program. This update
to an article first published as a Stimson "Spotlight" analysis was produced
with the research assistance of Tim Hamlin.