Destruction in Myanmar: 'The government's response created a most unnatural disaster.'

A deadly cyclone brought vast destruction to the Irrawaddy Delta in Myanmar (also known as Burma) on May 2. Myanmar officials estimate 134,000 people are dead and missing as of this writing, but international estimates put the number at 200,000.

A partner of Catholic Relief Services/Caritas Internationalis described the situation: “To my eyes, that have seen the Asia tsunami and the Kashmir earthquake, it was overwhelming. As our boat moved along, a body of a small boy drifted by. People have no drinking water or food or shelter. There were many refugees, living in roofless churches and monasteries. Help has not reached them. We are doing what we can.”


C.R.S./Caritas and local church partners are reaching tens of thousands in some of the most remote villages. But with another 2.4 million people displaced and left destitute by the storm, there is concern that the death toll will surge in the coming weeks, surpassing even the count of 280,000 dead in the 2004 Asian tsunami. The similarities to the 2004 tsunami end there. While that storm took hundreds of thousands of lives overnight, an effective emergency relief effort prevented further loss of life in the weeks that followed. Within hours of the tsunami, for example, Admiral Thomas B. Fargo of the U.S. Pacific Command ordered a U.S. headquarters deployed to the region for a massive relief effort. During peak operations, 21 countries sent military assets to assist civilian relief efforts in Indonesia, Maldives, Sri Lanka and Thailand, including 102 ships, 104 helicopters, 92 planes and 30 medical, engineering or logistics teams. These provided nearly a half-million gallons of water, 2,125 tons of food and 3,000 tons of supplies.

According to Richard Love, a professor at the National Defense University (and, full disclosure, my husband), “Effective emergency response requires quickly and accurately assessing needs, identifying and moving the capacities to meet those needs, planning to best coordinate civil and state responses, and leadership.” Having helped create the emergency response plans used during the tsunami, he notes, “the problem with most approaches to disaster response is the underlying assumption that outside assistance should augment local and state response efforts. In cases from Katrina to Myanmar this assumption is false. What happens when there is not an effective local or state response to augment?”

This is not an idle question. For many of the world’s most vulnerable, sovereign control is either absent or predatory. Nearly one-third of the world’s population, two billion out of the more than six billion people on the planet, live in failed or failing states. Over two billion people live in 43 countries where the state deprives them of basic human rights and freedoms. The worst of these states are predatory, killing their own people.

This is the case in Myanmar. The initial storm was horrific, but the military government’s response created a most unnatural disaster, putting their own political power concerns ahead of the survival of the people.

Myanmar has been ruled by a brutal military junta since 1962. The ruling regime, called (in Orwellian fashion) the State Peace and Development Council, is one of the worst abusers of human rights in the world, according to human rights N.G.O.’s and the U.S. Department of State. The military routinely pillages settlements, rapes women, forcibly conscripts child soldiers, abducts people into slave labor and trades in drugs. They also practice ethnic cleansing, destroying the villages of minorities who either oppose the government or stand in the way of state infrastructure development projects. Dissenters are subject to prison or death. Last fall, the country’s Buddhist monks led pro-democracy protests that were brutally put down in what has been dubbed, alluding to the color of the monks’ robes, the Saffron Revolution. The Karen minority group, whose members are predominantly Christian, is the worst affected. The U.S. Committee for Refugees calls them “one of the most ignored groups in one of the most difficult humanitarian emergencies.” The military target the Karen, forcing them to flee and trying to break down their resistance by denying them access to food and funds.

The junta fears growing opposition, so it resists any foreign influence, including the distribution of emergency relief aid. After weeks of negotiations with the United Nations and foreign governments and nongovernmental organizations, the regime has slowly permitted a trickle of aid. During the critical first days and weeks, the entry and movement of aid, doctors and international relief experts were blocked, along with shipments of vehicles, communications and other equipment. The military has been diverting relief aid from the victims to its own forces; even the Myanmar government is now trying to stop this. Allegations are circulating around the N.G.O. community that the military is denying relief aid to the Karen and other minority groups on the Delta in hopes of exterminating them, using the poor response to the cyclone as a cover and an aid to their policies of ethnic cleansing. If true, these allegations may comprise crimes against humanity that entail a responsibility to protect, as the French government has been arguing in the United Nations.

Archbishop Charles Bo of Yangon puts it well: “Many thousands look towards the Church for assistance in Myanmar.... Thousands of homeless and starving people knock at our door. Help us to help those people.... Myanmar should not once again be forgotten by the world.”

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