Fri 28 Jan 2005
Filed under: News,Opinion
Optimists look at the tsunami’s silver lining. Maybe the tragedy will break entrenched political stalemates and perhaps force a degree of humility on despotic leaders. The world’s worst natural disaster in modern times has potentially brought valuable lessons to erring humans that they should change their selfish ways, and to enemies to bury the hatchet in what has been a massive display of community spirit.
Such hopes have seen peace brought to civil-strife torn Aceh, Indonesia, and Sri Lanka – if not a lasting peace, at least a temporary truce while adversaries work side by side to deal with the devastation. This has happened in the past, with antagonists at least thawing hardened positions in the common cause of humanity.
But optimists would be mistaken to harbor such ideas when looking at Burma’s leaders, despite the fact the country was also hit by the tsunami. It seems the tidal waves claimed Burmese victims, but washed over the generals’ iron mindset.
The military government of one of the world’s poorest countries said soon after the tsunami lashed South and Southeast Asian countries on December 26 that it could cope by itself and didn’t need international aid. It later clarified this, however, to mean it was turning down bilateral aid from foreign governments, while allowing lesser relief from NGOs such as the Red Cross and UNICEF, the UN children’s fund. More than 220,000 people were killed in a number of countries, but Rangoon’s official death toll was 59, and even international organizations based there put the figure only marginally higher at 60-80.
But the NGOs added that 10,000 people had been directly affected and several thousand homes destroyed. The generals have been quiet about this, and it appears they are allowing only basic NGO aid in the form of such needs as blankets and mosquito nets. Homeless and injured victims will therefore be deprived of the major international assistance generously pouring into other affected countries.
It highlights the junta’s xenophobia and strict isolationist policy. This attitude is displayed particularly towards western countries, whose criticism of the regime’s human rights record is especially harsh, and it may explain the generals’ anxiety even now to keep them at arm’s length.
Western countries may want to help Burma post-tsunami despite any reservations about the leadership’s grip on power. But military leaders appear reluctant to agree lest the move threatens to be channeled into attempts to use political influence. The military has traditionally built fences to prevent intrusion in any way by what they perceive as â€œenemies.â€ That applies to both international cooperation and non-cooperation.
Burma is an unusual example of two widely-different international approaches to induce the generals to change their ways: Western countries, particularly the United States and the EU, have tried using economic and political sanctions to try to push the leadership towards democracy; Asian countries, including the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or Asean, and China, have stuck to a policy of engagement to achieve politically progressive steps.
Neither has worked. The stubborn military leadership hasn’t bought either approach.
The junta has not reacted to neighbouring Asian countries softer approach – dubbed â€œconstructive engagementâ€ by Asean – while it shrugs off western sanctions.
A recent example of the former was Thailand’s international â€œBangkok Processâ€ aimed at bringing about political reform in Burma. It sought reconciliation among military, opposition and ethnic-minority leaders. But it was to no avail, as the junta used it only as a means of lecturing the international community that it did not need external help, and would accept friendly approaches from neighbouring countries only when it needed them..
That’s been the regime’s policy all along, and one which the international community should understand. The military leadership’s only interest over the decades has been to retain power, one way or another. For instance, a recent letter to the regime by the main opposition National League for Democracy, or NLD, calling for â€œforgivenessâ€ between both sides as a way to national reconciliation was ignored by the junta. It reflected the fact that the military rulers have never accepted any proposal from either opposition or ethnic groups, from transferring power to holding talks.
The opposition should realize that any possibility of talks with the regime about national reconciliation or political change is wishful thinking. Opposition politicians will only be welcome if they say â€œyesâ€ to anything on offer.
The state-run New Light of Myanmar newspaper recently ran an article saying: â€œIf they have the real wish to see the flourishing of democracy in the nationâ€¦ all the political parties should join hands with Tatmadaw [armed forces].â€ That sums up the junta’s political stance.
It’s just a shame that the regime’s hubris and isolation even after such a natural disaster means that Burmese tsunami victims’ plight is being hushed up, with no solid international relief on the way.