May 22, 2008
A DISASTER IN GOVERNANCE
Pity the masses
By Nyi Nyi Kyaw, For The Straits Times
'IT SHOULD be a simple matter. It's not a matter of politics. It's a matter of a humanitarian crisis,' said US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
She was reacting to the Myanmar government's initial refusal to allow foreign relief aid to reach its cyclone-hit population. Dr Rice's comment exemplifies the two-dimensional disaster facing the Myanmar people: They are suffering from not only a natural calamity, but also a disaster in governance.
Natural disasters are inevitable. But there is expertise that can anticipate or contain their fallouts. For example, when strong storms are approaching, scientists can track them and predict their time of occurrence and destructibility. This information is usually shared freely with countries which lack such expertise.
The Indian Meteorological Department had warned the Myanmar authorities of Cyclone Nargis' track and severity 48 hours before it struck.
Also, most countries are now able to reduce the degree of devastation that natural disasters cause. Relief efforts can be immediately put in place to alleviate suffering. Dead bodies can be removed promptly to prevent the outbreak of diseases. Broken transport and communication systems can be repaired so that relief aid can reach the most severely hit people and places. Food and water can be distributed to the hungry and thirsty.
The junta has neglected to do any of these things. Myanmar is proof that when a natural disaster meets a disaster in governance, the impact on human suffering is enormous.
The junta manifested its irresponsibility and neglect both before and after Nargis hit. It failed to send warnings and make proper preparations, such as evacuating those in Nargis' path. Worse, it did not provide any significant support to the stricken areas. It also blocked international humanitarian assistance in many ways. Governance disaster made the natural disaster infinitely worse.
According to the UN, at least one million cyclone survivors have been without any aid for more than a week. Meanwhile, epidemiologists warn that contagious diseases will kill many more people if relief is further delayed.
Many outbreaks of contagious diseases in the Irrawaddy delta caused by a lack of clean water and preventive medicine have already been reported.
The international agency Oxfam has predicted that up to 1.5 million lives will be put at risk if proper measures are not taken now.
The World Food Programme has warned that Myanmar has less than 10 per cent of the staff, material and general logistical apparatus needed to manage a crisis like this. Worse, less than 20 per cent of the food needed has been distributed.
Yet, the junta still continues to delay relief aid, although it has eased some restrictions in recent days, and some aid has been distributed.
But during this huge crisis, the military regime exposed its inner will by holding a referendum on its newly written Constitution. It was a cunning effort on its part to document its hold on power. Many within and without the country, including UN Secretary-general Ban Ki Moon, urged the junta to postpone the May 10 referendum, to no avail.
Foreigners were not allowed to observe the referendum, and voters report widespread cheating at polling stations. The junta's insistence on holding the referendum was a clear sign of its disregard for its people's welfare.
Calls for humanitarian intervention have emerged, with some preferring negotiations with and pressure on the junta through governments friendly to Myanmar.
Whatever the approach, the most important thing is to prevent a looming public health crisis. No more time wasting.
The writer is a native of Myanmar. He is studying at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, NTU.