June 2008 | By Gayle Allard, Professor of Economic Environment at IE Business School
Cyclone Nargis has once again placed the spotlight on the brutal repression taking place in Burma. Will the world forget as quickly this time as it did after the â??Saffron revolutionâ??
Myanmar disappeared from the news headlines and our collective consciousness months ago after the brutal repression of the “saffron revolution”, a peaceful protest led by Buddhist monks to demand the end of a repressive government. On that occasion, we forgot to ask how many hundreds of unarmed demonstrators had died and when a new democratic government would arrive. Sadly, the catastrophe of the Narcis cyclone has once again put the Asian country, one of the poorest and most repressed in the region, on the front pages of all international media.
On its way through Myanmar (Burma for the countryÂ´s democrats), the cyclone has destroyed everything in its path. The houses built with cardboard walls and earth floors did not need much and the cyclone has flattened entire villages without leaving one single building standing. The almost inexistent transport network has isolated hundreds of thousands of victims. An independent international sources set the number of deaths at 100,000, with at least another one million victims left homeless. Witnesses say that endless numbers of corpses float down the rivers and that it is impossible to walk through the rice fields without stumbling over them. Food is expensive and scarce and does not reach survivors. Furthermore, there is no electricity or drinking water in the most heavily affected areas. With the passing of time, the threat of contagious diseases such as cholera and dengue fever is imminent while the dead bodies of people and animals rot in the streets.
How has the military government that has ruled the country for the last four decades responded to this catastrophe? If we remember, the authorities closed off the country in autumn to block the publication of news on the repression of democratic protests. And not even seeing its people dying has made it open up its frontiers. The military junta that governs the country took four days to send helicopters to distribute food in the most affected areas, inhabited by approximately 24 million people. It took five days to let United Nations aircraft enter the country with food, medicines and other goods, without the means for distributing them. One week after the tragedy, it still refuses access to the country by international agency workers who want to enter to distribute food and help the victims. While the Burmese people die from hunger and lack of medical attention, not only workers, but also thousands of tons of food and other necessary goods stand waiting on the frontiers for the dictatorsÂ´ decision.
The humanitarian aid and logistics offered by the United States remains unaccepted, partly because it was one of the few countries that penalised the military junta for the brutal repression of the saffron protest. France, frustrated by the wait on the frontiers, is considering the possibility of forcing the government to accept its help. Meanwhile, the government continues with its plans to hold a referendum this Saturday on a new constitution that would award it even greater power after 46 years of dictatorship.
Here in the West, what can we do with such a situation? On the one hand, there is a repressive government that cannot be easily pressured from outside to evolve towards a democratic system. But even more seriously, said government deliberately blocks the aid that would save the lives of thousands of people (its own citizens) because it does not want to grow weak or find itself criticized by its opponents and international public opinion.
Will we continue to close our eyes until Myanmar is again no longer news in the press? Or will we fight on an international scale to demand the end of a regime that defends its power above not only peace and freedom, but also the very existence of millions of citizens?