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  Asia-Pacific
When a Disastrous Regime Continues
By Nava Thakuria
Special Correspondent
When a disastrous regime continues

The devastating cyclone Nargis that struck southern Burma two months ago, has revealed to the world that it was even less disastrous than its military regime, which can ignore its own people in urgent needs and even could prevent and restrict relief from international communities for the hundred thousand victims of the disaster with the apprehension that it might create an atmosphere for another people's uprising in the country.

Since August 2007, Burma continued to receive massive international media headlines. After 1988, it was for the first time, when hundred thousands Buddhist monks and common people of Burma came to the streets raising voices against the military regime known as the State Peace and Development Council. The movement was crushed by the military people and its thugs. Nearly hundred died and thousands were sent to jails, many of them are still behind the bar.

But this time, the junta has been challenged by the nature. A tropical cyclone moved towards the Burmese land from the Bay of Bengal on the night of May 2 and it devastated the entire Irrawaddy and Rangoon divisions of the country. The deadly cyclone Nargis also embraced three other divisions and states (Bago, Mon and Kayin) to kill nearly ninety thousand people and made another few thousands homeless. Nargis also left its trail of devastation on social infrastructures and killing thousands of livestock and also causing flood to paddy fields, which were made ready for Burma's primary crops (rice cultivation).

According to the latest government information, the storm killed 84,537 people, leaving 53,836 missing and 19,359 injured. The United Nations estimates that Nargis affected 2.4 million people and directly made hundred thousands homeless. At the same time, over 300,000 water buffalo and cows died in Irrawaddy delta and Rangoon localities. More over, nearly 1,000,000 acres of farmland in Irrawaddy and 300,000 acres in Rangoon Division were destroyed. Over one million acres of fertile lands also were flooded with the salty seawater during Nargis.

But the response to the disaster by its own rulers was very shocking. First the rulers couldn't provide immediate relief to the victims and then they tried to prevent (and restrict) the international aid for their very own people, who were in desperate need of food, medicine and shelter. Thirdly the junta went ahead with the referendum (in two phases) in the country with a number of pro-military provisions for their new constitution amidst all the chaos. Fourthly, the rulers extended the detention of the pro-democracy icon Daw Aung San Suu Kyi for one more year that prompted harsh criticism from the international communities.

"If a regime is challenged by the people, the rulers might have choices to deploy its forces and the SPDC did during last year's popular uprising. But this time, the junta has been challenged by none other than the nature (read cyclone). So what did military rulers do? As they can never go against the nature, they went against the innocent people! Have you heard of a government, which not only denied timely and adequate relief to those victims of circumstances, but also bent preventing the same from outside sources?," commented a Rangoon based political activist Win Naing (name changed).

Answering queries from Asia Sentinel, Naing, a supporter of the pro-democracy movement led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma, also added, "The military regime at Nay Pyi Taw always remained blind to the political power and they can go to all extends to maintain it. Hence they could ignore all the troubles faced by the cyclone victims. The SPDC chief Senior General Than Shwe got time to visit those victims only after international criticism surfaced in a bigger way. Mind it, they can easily sacrifice the people, but never tolerate international access (through the aid workers) to its common people."

The callousness of the junta was also criticized by Suzanne DiMaggio, Director of the Asia Society's Social Issues Program (and former Vice President of Global Policy Programs at the United Nations Association of the USA) saying that 'for nearly five decades, Burma's military rulers have systematically undermined the interests of their own citizens.'

Referring to the cyclone Narigs, she stated that the junta-controlled news media failed to announce warnings about the approaching cyclone.

"The entry of UN humanitarian personnel, has been delayed due to the government's refusal to allow aid workers into the country without first applying for visas. Moreover, the military leaders are dragging their feet on easing restrictions on the import of humanitarian supplies and allowing a UN assessment team into the country," she added.

Similar views were expressed by a Burmese exile living in Europe, who claimed that nearly two million people, mostly farmers and their families, were still living in horrible situations. Talking to Asia Sentinel from London, Tyaza Thuria expressed his anger that the military regime was only interested in retaining its power.

"Hence they have gone ahead with their plans for referendum (only to forcefully approve the pro-military constitution) and finally to install a puppet civilian regime after the 2010 polls," he asserted adding that the junta had done nothing for the rehabilitation for the cyclone victims. They did not also put any effort to warn the people about the deadly storm. In reality the junta just doesn't care about the people.

The junta went with their own 'roadmap to democracy', where the Army would enjoy the emergency power in need and could even topple an elected government (for the National security). Moreover seats will be reserved for the people with Armed forces background in the Parliament. The new constitution will also prevent Suu Kyi from contesting the election as she had married a non-Burmese (an Englishman).

More to add it, the junta had extended the period of house arrest for Suu Kyi for one more year. The Nobel laureate had already spent five full years under detention since May, 2003. Hence the decision of the junta on Suu Kyi's detention invited prompt and harsh criticism from the world communities. From the United Nations to European Union and the United States to other pro-democratic regimes, all came out with stronger words of condemnation against the military regime.

Mentionable that the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon visited Burma and met the SPDC chief Than Shwe on May 23, days ahead of junta's decision (on Suu Kyi) and he had no other option than expressing regret on the development. He however commented that 'the sooner the restrictions on Suu Kyi and other political figures are lifted, the sooner Burma will be able to move towards inclusive national reconciliation, the restoration of democracy and full respect for human rights.'

Even the UN chief also invited criticism from various advocacy groups that he was silent about Suu Kyi's prolonged detention while discussing with Than Shwe in Burma. Of course, he made it clear, while talking to media persons in New York, that 'his trip was a purely humanitarian one intended to save lives, not to press a pro-democracy agenda,'

The Secretary-General also added, "I went there with a message of solidarity and hope, telling the survivors (of cyclone Nargis) that the world is with you and that the world is ready to help you."

Nargis hit the country in a critical period of the year. The month of May in English calendar year brings the season for preparing rice seedlings, to be planted later. Like many South and Southeast Asian countries, rice is the primary crop (also the staple food) of Burma. The traditional rice plantation needs to be completed within the rainy season, more preferably by the July end. The harvesting time starts from October.

Hence the May 2-3 disaster can put a heavy toll on rice production in Burma. The cyclone in one hand flooded the arable lands with the salty sea water, destroyed the already grown saplings and on the other hand it killed the water buffalos (also cows), which remained essential for the poor Burmese cultivators for ploughing. If immediate actions are not taken to support the farmers with tiller and fresh rice saplings, it can be guessed that Burma might face food crisis at the end of the year; Because the Irrawaddy (river) delta region produces most (almost 60 %) of the country's rice.

Besides rice, the region also contributes in fish productions. The cyclone damaged most of the fishing ponds, hatcheries and shrimp farms of the area and it could add more people under poverty tag in the coming days.

Meanwhile the UN Undersecretary-General Noeleen Heyzer issued a clarion call for supplying fuel (to run the power tillers) for the Burmese farmers. Heyzer had reportedly stated that this initiative was crucial for the affected Burmese farmers 'to meet their planting season' to rebuild their livelihood.

Earlier the Burmese Agriculture minister Htay Oo informed that they urgently needed diesel (it might be a volume of five million litre) to run around 5,000 power tillers. It may be mentioned that, understanding the real and immediate difficulties of the rice growers, many countries including China and Thailand donated the power tillers to the farmers.

Burma, which was once known as the rice bowl of Asia, has slowly lost the volume of rice production. Four decades of non-governance under the military rule and disastrous economic policies of the junta has left Burma in such a pathetic condition that the farmers now lost their interest and motivation for surplus productions.

Amidst all the troubles and uncertainties looming over Burma, Win Naing, who keeps a closer look at the political developments in the entire country, hopes for a major uprising in the country. And he has arguments what he and many of his friends are expecting.

"The cyclone has taught the Burmese people that there is nothing like governance in Burma and they have to face all the problems with their own with outside supports. In fact, they come to realize the presence of outer agencies in a bigger way after the disaster. It will definitely enrich their optimism for a change," Naing argued.

He also added, "During the saffron revolution (September, 2007), the Burmese people (over 80% of them are Buddhist) witnessed how their government could torture the monks, the most respected community in the country, to remain in power. This time, they have seen the cruelty of the government towards them. I apprehend try the junta will slip into a bigger trouble very soon as the regime has started losing its influence on the monks and the common people. We expect if it would happen little earlier!"



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Nava Thakuria, who serves as a special correspondent for The Seoul Times, is based in Guwahati of Northeast India. He also contributes articles for many media outlets based in different parts of the glove, and can be contacted at navathakuria@gmail.com

 

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