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 World Affairs

The bad, the ugly and the Myanmar junta

The Western  world is still outraged at the attitude of the Myanmar military junta which rejected offers by countries around the world, particularly of Western countries, to help the victims of cyclone Nargis which devastated the country four weeks ago.

There is much emotion and anger exhibited against the callousness of the military junta in letting their own people suffer - an estimated 2. 4 million people without any assistance while the outside world was queuing up in neighbouring Bangkok to fly in relief supplies and workers. A  report on Thursday said that a Canadian volunteer organisation was planning to send knickers to the leaders of the military junta to shame them.

Certainly the military which has been holding the Myanmar people under their military jackboot for 46 years deserved condemnation much before cyclone Nargis struck. But their reluctance to let in hordes of workers of international organisations, particularly volunteer organisations is in their own interests.

Hara Kiri

It is no secret that the Western powers would like to see the junta go, and see a democratic regime favourable to them in place. But the Myanmar generals apparently were not willing to commit hara kiri. The conduct of a referendum to draw up a constitution which is clearly directed at keeping the junta in power indicated their determination to hang on, come what may.

The referendum which reports from Yangon say, was rigged will also have a special provision to keep out Aung Suu Kyi, the leader of the Burmese opposition from politics. Suu Kyi, a Nobel Laureate whose party swept the elections held in 1990 has been under house arrest for over a decade. Last week her detention was extended six months by the junta in the fear that she may become the focal point of unrest that could result from this calamity.

Volunteers permitted

The sheer extent of the disaster with an estimated 133,000 people killed or missing, 2.4 million till hungry, homeless and without medical attention should have made the military rulers permit outside relief to come in  a regulated manner that could not endanger their existence. Finally the visit of UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon resulted in the junta last week allowing the entry of foreign aid workers and international organisations.  How many relief workers would be permitted to enter the devastated area of the Irrawady delta will be seen in the coming weeks.

China which was also devastated by a massive earthquake was treated much better by Western leaders and the media. China which too has been reluctant to permit entry of foreigners into their country including foreign media personnel, this time permitted a free flow. This appears to have satisfied the West which is enraged when a country attempts to downplay the magnitude of a disaster.

 Why hate NGOs?

Western critics should find out the reasons why poor countries are reluctant to allow foreign volunteers to help them even when national disasters occur. While the West may call it xenophobia, foreign organisations even if they be recognised international organisations such as those of the UN, consider it their moral right to interfere with the internal affairs of sovereign states even if there is no legal basis.

India which has suffered from myriad foreign NGOs said a firm no to offers when the tsunami hit the southern regions of India. Sri Lanka permitted a free flow of the do-gooders but soon found these organisations embroiled in national issues such as the PTOMS, an organisation proposed for distribution of tsunami aid. While some of these organisations do have altruistic motives others have shown an inclination to direct domestic and foreign policies of poor nations.

It is undeniable that in many countries there are segments of the community that for good or bad reasons want foreign organisations to be kept out. The UN and Western powers consider NGOs are an essential component of their foreign policy - second track diplomacy it is called. A future issue in Third World politics would be the role of foreign organisations in the governance of a country.

  Altruism?

Not all the pledges of foreign organisations are genuine and altruistic. An AP report on Thursday quoted Myanmar government officials lashing out against foreign donors for not living up to promises. The state run radio criticised donors for pledging only $ 150 million whereas according to government estimates $ 11 billion was required for rebuilding the devastated areas. 

Ahri a state owned newspaper said that cyclone victims in the Irrawady delta don't need foreign handouts. They don't need bars of chocolates because in the Irrawady delta fresh vegetables grow wild and there are plenty of protein rich fish in the rivers, it said. A spokesman for the World Good Programme was quoted saying that the reference to chocolates was only 'metaphorical' because no aid agency had donated chocolates.

Meanwhile the Managing Director of the World Bank Juan Jose Daboub was quoted saying that the Bank would not extend any financial aid or loans because Myanmar had not paid its debts for a decade.

 Ships from the United States, Britain and France laden with emergency supplies and carrying personnel trained in relief operations were berthed in seas close to Myanmar but the junta was standing firmly by its decision not to let these personnel in.

The military junta should be held responsible and condemned for the suffering and deaths of thousands of people while safeguarding its own interests but in the process it has protected the sovereignty of their country.


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