(by Benny Avni, NYSun.com) UNITED NATIONS – While China’s President Hu expresses confidence that Burma’s military rulers are capable of handling the recovery from one of Asia’s deadliest cyclones in years, the United Nations and world officials, including President Bush, are warning that the regime’s denial of access to foreign humanitarian workers could increase significantly the suffering and the death toll.
Foreign humanitarian agencies estimate that the toll in the aftermath of Saturday’s cyclone could rise to more than 60,000 deaths, and that bad access roads and other factors caused by decades of misrule are likely to complicate the recovery efforts. Burma’s junta refused yesterday to cancel a national referendum, scheduled for Saturday, on its much-criticized plan to enshrine the generals’ hold on power in a new constitution.
Mr. Bush offered to enlist the American Navy yesterday in the recovery efforts, urging the junta to allow in foreign aid. In a White House ceremony yesterday, he also awarded the Congressional Gold Medal to the jailed opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. The House of Representatives also passed a resolution denouncing the proposed constitution as a “sham.”
Despite heightened international attention to Burma in the cyclone’s aftermath, the generals “are very much in power,” said the author of “The River of Lost Footsteps,” Thant Myint-U, whose Burmese grandfather, U Thant, was the third U.N. secretary general. “They have their own vision, where they want to go, and Western leverage over them is close to zero.”
The junta yesterday revised the cyclone’s casualty count to 22,464 deaths. But in government-controlled broadcasts, officials said that more than 41,000 people are missing, and U.N. officials added that “hundred of thousands” of people are stranded without shelter, vulnerable to diseases and death. As of last night, however, no outside team capable of assessing the needs on the ground has been admitted into Burma.
Secretary-General Ban yesterday wrote urgently to the junta leader, General Shwe, and while his aides declined to disclose the letter’s contents, the director of the U.N. humanitarian coordination office in New York, Rashid Khalikov, told reporters that a five-member assessment team has been waiting in Thailand, ready to go in[to] the country as soon as it gets a visa. “Four days is a lot of time when it comes to natural disasters,” he said.
Yesterday, Burma-based representatives of U.N. agencies met with junta officials, and according to unnamed opposition sources in Rangoon, the generals made clear that while food, water, plastic sheets, and other necessities would be allowed into the country, the government would control all aid distribution, said the director of United States Campaign for Burma, Aung Din. Delivery could become a crucial issue, as the junta is known to use foreign assistance for its own aims, he said.
Nevertheless, Mr. Hu sent a message of “sympathy” to Mr. Shwe, according to Xinhua. The Chinese premier “expressed the belief that Myanmar would soon overcome the difficulties caused by the cyclone and restore normal life for its people under the leadership of the” junta.
America will donate $3.25 million in unconditional aid, Mr. Bush said, offering even more assistance. “We are prepared to move U.S. Navy assets to help find those who have lost their lives, to help find the missing, and to help stabilize the situation,” he said. “But in order to do so, the military junta must allow our disaster assessment teams into the country. So our message is to the military rulers: Let the United States come and help you help the people.”
The Burmese junta’s referendum on a plan to partially end military rule by the next decade has been roundly criticized, and the House of Representatives yesterday passed a resolution calling on the U.N. Security Council to reject the outcome of the vote. Yesterday the government announced that only the vote in hardest-hit areas would be postponed to May 24.
Rather than accepting international offers of assistance, the junta generals “are only concentrating on how to cheat on the referendum,” said Mr. Din of the U.S. Campaign for Burma.
“More than natural disasters of the moment, however high their toll may be, the heavy yoke of the Burmese military has victimized the people of Burma for more than 20 years,” said the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Howard Berman, a Democrat of California, who was one of the resolution’s sponsors. “By passing this resolution, we condemn the scheduled referendum for the sham that it is.”
Reprinted here with permission from The New York Sun. Visit the website at NYSun.com.
1. According to the U.N. and world officials, what could significantly increase the suffering and death toll in Burma in the aftermath of Saturday’s cyclone?
2. What is expected to complicate the recovery efforts in Burma?
3. What planned event has Burma’s junta refused to cancel despite the devastation caused by Saturday’s cyclone?
4. a) What number did the junta give yesterday as the official death toll from Saturday’s cyclone?
b) According to officials, how many people are still missing?
c) How many people do U.N. officials estimate to be stranded without shelter, vulnerable to diseases and death?
5. The ruling Generals have said they would allow foreign aid in the form of food, water, plastic sheets and other necessities into the country. What may hinder the usefulness of this aid?
6. a) What type of aid has the U.S. offered?
b) What must the junta do to enable the U.S. to carry out this assistance?
-Burma is ruled by a military junta. A junta is a government, especially a military one, that has taken power in a country by force and not by election.
-In 1989, Burma’s military junta changed the name of the country to “Union of Myanmar.” This controversial name change was not recognized by the opposition groups and many English-speaking nations.
THE GOVERNMENT OF BURMA:
Britain conquered Burma over a period of 62 years (1824-1886) and incorporated it into its Indian Empire. Burma was administered as a province of India until 1937 when it became a separate, self-governing colony; independence from the Commonwealth was attained in 1948. The military has ruled since 1962, when the army overthrew an elected government that had been buffeted by an economic crisis and a raft of ethnic insurgencies. During the next 26 years, General Ne Win’s military rule helped impoverish what had been one of Southeast Asia’s wealthiest countries.
The present junta, led by General Than Shwe, dramatically asserted its power in 1988, when the army opened fire on peaceful, student-led, pro-democracy protesters, killing an estimated 3,000 people.
Despite multiparty legislative elections in 1990 that resulted in the main opposition party – the National League for Democracy (NLD) – winning a landslide victory, the ruling junta refused to hand over power. NLD leader and Nobel Peace Prize recipient AUNG SAN SUU KYI, has been under house arrest on and off since 1989, the latest since 2003, where she remains virtually incommunicado. In February 2006, the junta extended her detention for another year. Her supporters, as well as all those who promote democracy and improved human rights, are routinely harassed or jailed. In August 2007, Burmese citizens angry over the government’s decision to double the price of fuel, began staging peaceful protests against the high prices. Buddhist monks were also involved and have spearheaded the largest challenge to the military junta since the failed uprising in 1988. (information taken from the CIA World FactBook and FreedomHouse.org)
(To read the complete background on the repressive Burmese government, go to FreedomHouse.org.)
Follow events in Burma at news.yahoo.com/fc/World/Myanmar
For a map of Burma, go to worldatlas.com
For general information on Burma, go to the CIA World FactBook at cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/index.html