A prayer for the dying - but will the junta listen?

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 May, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 11 May, 2008, 12:00am

If saving lives and improving the welfare of its people were a priority, the junta ruling Myanmar would not have maintained the harsh regime it has for almost half a century. A week since Cyclone Nargis struck, it is estimated that up to 100,000 people are dead or missing. Up to 1.5 million survivors are facing dire prospects unless aid relief reaches them soon.

Incredibly, the generals have declared they only want aid, not aid workers. Their decision is shocking and callous; it is only matched by their utter cynicism by going ahead with a referendum on a draft constitution yesterday, at least in areas that were less affected by the disaster. Yet, if the junta cares more about its own self-interest than its people, the rest of the world must now make the victims' survival and welfare in coming days and months its priority. The junta must be persuaded to open up to aid agencies, whether from countries in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations or the west. They have the resources and expertise that Myanmar, unfortunately, lacks.

Given the extent of the devastation, only concerted large-scale international relief and reconstruction efforts could do the job. Some Asean countries, and China, are now working quietly behind the scenes, in addition to offering aid with no strings attached. But should they fail, the world may have to compromise with the junta, however unpalatable that option seems. Getting some relief materials to the victims is better than none at all.

Proceeding with the referendum yesterday and refusing entry to aid agencies are part and parcel of the generals' bunker mentality. Ostensibly, the referendum will pave the way to a democratic transition to civilian rule. In reality, it will more likely solidify the generals' hold on power. Their refusal to allow in aid workers must be understood in this light.

In 2004, Myanmar refused foreign aid after the Indian Ocean tsunami. The generals were afraid they might be perceived by their people as being weak and impotent if they accepted help from foreigners. Ever suspicious and paranoid, they were, moreover, afraid it might create an opening for western governments to push for political change. The same fears dictate their current response to the cyclone. This time, however, the scale of the disaster is much greater for the country. Therefore, the junta initially dithered, and looked ready to accept foreign help. After running the country's economy to the ground, it is painfully aware it does not have the infrastructure, public health system and emergency services to deal with a disaster of this magnitude.

The junta now sees an opening of its own. Clearly, it thinks if it can lay hands on foreign aid, it will make itself appear to be its people's saviour by controlling its distribution. Unfortunately, the expertise it has developed over decades lies in suppressing its people and putting down dissent, not delivering relief and rebuilding lives. The junta is clearly not up to the task in bringing necessary relief to up to 1.5 million people. However, humanitarian intervention is out of the question without United Nations sanction; and the United States, China and Russia - key UN Security Council members - have pretty much ruled out such a drastic measure.

Time is running out for those who survived this disaster. The world must now convince the generals that it is in their own interests to prevent thousands more from dying. This can only be done by allowing in not only the much-needed aid, but the workers and equipment needed to deliver it.