In addition to the rapidly climbing death toll brought on by Cyclone Nargis nearly two weeks ago, more than 2 million people in the region have fallen into a state of homelessness and famine. Rather than die of thirst, refugees are drinking water contaminated by the floating bodies of between 63,000 and 100,000 (according to the U.N.) of their friends, families, and fellow countrymen. As a result, disease is running rampant and unchecked. As many as a million Nargis victims remain at risk of death from disease and hunger because the ruling military junta will only let a sliver of foreign aid through. That which it does allow is pillaged by authorities and sold for profit.
Interestingly, however, the U.S. media has nearly abandoned the Burma story altogether, instead swarming to news of Monday’s massive earthquake in China like flies on shit. Both stories are tragic and demand attention, but in only one are there reports of treacherous mismanagement of aid and shocking abuse of power and human rights. There have been passive, brief reports on the fact that Burma’s authoritarian regime has thus far barred nearly all outside assistance in managing the humanitarian crisis. Could it be that the American media’s complete kaleidoscope coverage of the devastation in China and, by contrast, the passing footnote of the ongoing and ever-increasing tragedy in Myanmar (with more than six times the number of casualties, and climbing) has any relationship with the amount of business we do with each country?
I guess that kind of thinking is what someone like Ann Coulter might call unpatriotic. The fact is, the devastation the Burmese people have faced since Nargis hit has been unfathomable, the stories of sacrifice and loss no less heartbreaking than anything currently happening in China. “We spoke to one woman who told us how, when the wave hit, she was with three of her young children,” reported an aid worker who requested anonymity for fear of putting his charity’s mission in jeopardy. “She had the baby in her arms and the toddlers by her side, but as the water reached her chin she had to make the terrible decision which of her children to hold out of the water and save.”
The need for charities and aid groups to work under the radar is due to what the worker described as the government’s “paranoid, knee-jerk response.” He added, “They have totally failed. This government is very good at controlling people and killing people, but it has no experience of humanitarian relief.”
The military regime in Myanmar has long been considered among the world’s most abusive and repressive, and official corruption is rampant on every level of government. In 1988, when several democratic protests were taking place, more than 10,000 students, Buddhist monks and civilians were killed in a series of protest clampdowns and outright massacres. Torture, rape and death are currently offered as punishment for any of the hundreds of thousands of men, women, elderly and even children in forced labor camps scattered throughout the country who refuse to work.
There is plenty for the Burmese government to hide, and it may begin to explain why checkpoint reinforcements are popping up all over the south of the country, and it was reported that anyone with fair skin was being turned away or even deported without warning. The story is, unfortunately and always, a little more complicated- and enraging.
Rather than pilot the relief efforts, the Burmese government has shut out nearly all outside help and has focused primarily on capitalizing on the crisis and hoarding supplies instead. Additionally, relief for untold thousands was needlessly wasted over the weekend when a Red Cross ship carrying relief kits and medical supplies hit a large tree stump and sank off the coast of Myanmar while awaiting the green light to come ashore.
It’s nearly impossible to get reliable news from the Burmese media, but the Democratic Voice of Burma has published several unfiltered pieces exposing the atrocities and horrors the government is committing. In a piece on government (mis)appropriation of international aid, the DVB declared that “Government officials and supporters have been taking relief supplies from international donors and selling them for personal gain.”
There have been widespread reports from villagers that military trucks arrive with relief supplies, but sell them to store merchants or for their own profit. “Soldiers also took away all the goods from a boat that docked in Bogalay harbour after the storm and then sold them in the market four or five days later,” reported one refugee in Rangoon. Foreign relief supplies are already for sale in bulk in Rangoon’s marketplace.
While three U.S. aid flights were finally allowed into the country this week, there is no guaranteeing where the supplies will go. Additionally, thousands of energy bars and nutrition biscuits donated by the international community were confiscated by Rangoon Military Command and replaced with poor-quality, tasteless Industry Ministry-1 biscuits, with labels that said “donated by the international community.” They were then given to refugees, according to an official of the ministry. Hey, at least they got something, right?
Human rights activists in Bogalay have noted that aid supplies, including food, beverages and medicine are being held without distribution in mosques, Hindu and Chinese temples, and schools. But not all schools have been assigned such a purpose. People are crammed into classrooms at a middle school in Hland Tha Yar, a large village about an hour’s drive west of Rangoon. The partially-roofless academic facility has been turned into a makeshift refugee center, brimming with over 2,000 hungry, stinking, desperate people. Not only have their livelihoods and property been destroyed, but the people have no access to even the most basic of health care or clean water.
Nearly all the school’s temporary residents are still wearing the clothes that they arrived in, crammed fifty to a room. They battle flies and mosquitoes as they await the arrival of the charity World Concern, who arrive each day with a scoop of rice for each individual – but nothing more. While rice in undamaged areas is still available for purchase, the price has almost doubled- a cruel economic twist, given the fact that the vast majority of the townsfolk are now homeless, with nothing but the clothes on their backs to call their own.
Most of the refugees had planned to stay in the school until their neighborhood was rebuilt, hopefully with the help of their government. Unfortunately, the people they’d hoped would save them have other plans. A government officer visited the school the other day, not to deliver aid, but an evacuation notice. Evidently, the government wants to use the school as a polling station in two weeks, for an election that officials reluctantly postponed after the disaster. Worse yet is that relief supplies, when distributed, are being used as campaign propaganda
I’m sorry to have to bring up Ann Coulter again, but the question lingers in my mind like a shit-covered splinter: Could she- or the twenty-three percent or so of Americans who still think Bush knows what the fuck he’s doing, and doing it for good cause- get behind a cause like the liberation of the Burmese people from a corrupt and tyrant government, even if they don’t have horizon-stretching oil fields for us to capitalize on in the process? What if we used what’s undoubtedly one of Ms. Coulter’s favorite words- invasion– and raised the idea of invading a country for humanitarian reasons? Could she get behind that?
There are massive complications in trying to force regulated aid by going through the proper U.N. channels, because the U.N. can’t authorize any help without the support of Russia and China. Both nations are understandably territorial over Burma’s offshore oil reserves (uh, oh, there’s the magic word), and maintain delicate close relationships with the Myanmar junta. Nobody’s eager to start pissing off those countries (who happen to have atrocious human rights records of their own) again just yet, so it’s safe to say that the U.N. is effectively paralyzed.
In all reality, however, a forced humanitarian intervention would be an unwise decision, unless the object were to completely overthrow the Burmese government. Unlike the U.S. invasion of Somalia in 1992 to feed to starving people of the war-torn, impoverished nation where soldiers were faced with resistance by well-armed local warlords, Burma’s army is modernized and equipped with 500,000 troops and a fleet of jet fighters.
So, unless we want to start another war to bring freedom, democracy and Halliburton to another part of the world, it appears that our hands our tied. In the meantime, head over to burmaitcantwait.org to learn more about Burma’s history and the struggle of its people, as well as the crisis currently underway. You can donate to the U.S. Campaign for Burma there as well, but I’m not sure what kind of guarantee you’ll get as to where your money will end up.
As for the site’s star power and entertainment value, Will Ferrell, Sarah Silverman, Jennifer Aniston, Eddie Izzard and Judd Apatow are just a few of the names that have filmed mini segments to raise awareness for the cause, with an occasional laugh (Sarah Silverman even ditches her cruel idiot schtick for a smirkworthy skit). It’s worth a look.