Contact: Roland Watson, roland@dictatorwatch.org


May 22, 2008

Please forward widely.

Southern Burma is desperate for humanitarian aid, and the world is attempting to respond. But, as much as the major aid agencies – OCHA, WFP, WHO and the Red Cross/Red Crescent – may argue otherwise, the question of assistance cannot be separated from politics. The nature of the political system that is in place where aid is required has to be taken into account. For Burma, the single-minded focus of the aid community on delivery is having the unintended effect of enriching the ruling junta, the SPDC, which to a great extent is responsible for the tragedy.

Just as the junta ingeniously devised as many ways as possible to steal the referendum vote, so too is it now applying itself to the incoming aid. First, it is demanding payments – bribes – simply to allow delivery. This includes payments for landing rights in Rangoon, and at the many checkpoints on the roads to the delta. A related action is price gouging. The aid agencies have been buying huge quantities of food in Burma, starting with rice and beans, and while they have not announced the prices that they are paying it would not be surprising if the junta were demanding a hefty premium.

There have also been many cases of outright appropriation, or to call it by its proper name – theft. This again has been taking place both at the airport and on the way to the affected areas. Aid supplies are for sale at markets in Rangoon and elsewhere. However, this is not the only way the supplies are being diverted. For example, the International Telecommunications Union delivered 100 satellite phones to the SPDC. The phones are supposed to be used to coordinate the relief effort, but it is likely if not inevitable that many will end up in the hands of the top generals and the Burma Army’s regional commanders. From there it is a short step to their being used to coordinate attacks on resistance groups and villagers in Eastern Burma and elsewhere. In other words, assistance that is supposed to save lives may well end up being used to take them.

The aid community also has plans to build a new infrastructure for the delta region, including communications facilities and medical clinics. This is laudable although it does leave a sour aftertaste as well, when you consider that the generals to date have denied these basic services and instead focused on maintaining the army and their own lavish lifestyles. More to the point, all of these supplies can and likely will be taken by the army once the crisis dies down. Communications gear, tents and building supplies, medicine and medical equipment, and also food, will be stripped from the delta and given to the Tatmadaw.

The practical effect of all of this is that Than Shwe and his cohorts are being showered with gifts. That’s why they have now agreed to involve their allies in Asean, to facilitate the delivery of their presents.

This is despicable, but it is not the worst thing that is happening. In Burma’s far southwest, where the cyclone first hit land, entire villages were wiped out. Many of the villagers were Karen. (Only a portion of the ethnic group lives within the boundaries of Karen State: there are large populations in the delta as well.) Than Shwe, Burma’s racist ruler, hates the Karen. He has been conducting a campaign of ethnic cleansing against them in Karen State that constitutes nothing less than an attempt at genocide. Some people believe that he is denying assistance to many of the worst hit areas in the delta, to ensure that even more members of the ethnicity die.

When aid deliveries are denied, or when foreign personnel are not allowed to accompany them, the aid agencies have to ask why this is the case. They need to look deeply into the situation, beyond the normal concerns of theft and redirection. The aid that is now being brought to Burma can save many lives. The agencies, though, must take the greatest care to ensure that it does not benefit the regime. If the aid enables the junta’s repression, including to commit crimes against humanity, the agencies are culpable for this as well.

There is a simple test that the agencies can use any time they are faced with a difficult choice. Just ask yourself: “What decision would I make if the person I was dealing with was Adolf Hitler?

The crisis in Burma is extremely challenging. The people are desperate. The countries of the world want to help, but the junta won’t allow it. Their response has been to bribe the dictatorship and then to look the other way to theft and murder. Their argument is that if they don’t do this, nothing at all will get in.

There is a solution to this problem. Forget the junta and organize an intervention to deliver the aid wherever it is needed. If the generals attempt to interfere, put down their aggression and overthrow the murderous bastards. The people will shower you with thanks.

Now that Ban Ki-moon has entered the picture, such intervention, if it was even seriously considered, is out of the question. Even France, which made a show of being intervention’s strongest proponent, has welcomed the development.

When the donors meet this Sunday in Rangoon, they must adjust their plans and account for the concerns raised in this statement. Also, please don’t forget, there are 150,000 refugees in camps in Thailand who because of the worldwide increase in rice prices have seen their rations cut. If you are so anxious to be involved with Burma, if it is the crisis du jour on which you expect to build your careers, please help everyone who needs it.