Tuesday, May 13, 2008

"Skillful Humanitarian Workers Are Not Necessary"

The US government moves to show the ruling military junta of Myanmar that it is serious about providing aid to the cyclone victims:

Admiral Timothy J. Keating flew in a U.S. Air Force C-130 from an air base in Thailand that is turning into a staging area for Burma relief. Accompanying him was Henrietta H. Fore, head of the U.S. Agency for International Development. At the airport in Rangoon, Burma's largest city, they conferred with Burma's top naval officer in the highest-level military contact between the two countries in decades.

Keating and Fore did not go beyond the airport before flying back to Thailand. Fore said she believed that "our discussions were a good first step" toward broader U.S. help.

Hours later, a second U.S. flight left Thailand with relief supplies. Lt. Col. Douglas Powell said the Marine C-130 cargo plane left for Yangon Tuesday carrying 19,900 pounds of water, blankets and mosquito nets. He said a third flight carrying more supplies would leave later in the day.

The United States has troops in the area that could assist in the humanitarian mission, but, so far, they have been told not to help:

The United States has offered to deploy as many as 4,000 Marines, six C-130 planes and a large number of heavy-lift helicopters in what would be its largest disaster relief effort since the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004. It will also have three naval ships, with helicopters on board, positioned off Burma's southwest coast within 48 hours.

"We have a broad array of personnel and equipment, and we are ready to respond as soon as the Burmese give us permission," Keating said.

The cargo plane on which Keating and Fore traveled delivered bottled water, blankets and mosquito nets. U.S. and Burmese military personnel jointly unloaded the supplies, which the Burmese promised to send quickly to the disaster zone by helicopter.

In another sign of gradual cooperation, U.N. officials said that the Burmese had now approved visas for 34 aid workers.

The U.S. government, meanwhile, moved Monday to allow individuals to send unlimited amounts of money to people in Burma.

Myanmar stopped short, again, of allowing meaningful assistance:

Myanmar told the United States on Monday that basic needs of the storm victims are being fulfilled and that "skillful humanitarian workers are not necessary."


Anne Applebaum has more on this story:

But in one very narrow sense, the cruel, power-hungry, violent and xenophobic generals who run Burma are not irrational at all: Given their most urgent goal -- to maintain power at all costs -- their reluctance to accept international aid in the wake of a devastating cyclone makes perfect sense. It's straightforward: The junta cares about its own survival, not the survival of its people. Thus the death toll is thought to have reached 100,000, a further 1.5 million Burmese are at risk of epidemics and starvation, parts of the country are still underwater, hundreds of thousands of people are camped in the open without food or clean water -- and, yes, if foreigners come to distribute aid, the legitimacy of the regime might be threatened.

Especially foreigners in large numbers, using high-tech vehicles that don't exist in Burma, distributing cartons of rice marked "Made in the USA" or even "UNDP," of course. All natural disasters -- from the Armenian earthquake that helped bring down the Soviet Union to Hurricane Katrina, which damaged the Bush administration -- have profound political implications, as do the aid efforts that follow them. The Burmese generals clearly know this.

Hence the "logic" of the regime's behavior in the days since the cyclone: the impounding of airplanes full of food; the initial refusal to grant visas to relief workers or landing rights to foreign aircraft; the initial refusal to allow American (or, indeed, any) military forces to supply the ships, planes and helicopters necessary for the mass distribution of food and supplies that Burma needs. Nor is this simply anti-Western paranoia: The foreign minister of Thailand has been kept out, too. Even Burmese citizens have been prevented from taking food to the flood-damaged regions, on the grounds that "all assistance must be channeled through the military." The result: Aid organizations that have workers on the ground are talking about the hundreds of thousands of homeless Burmese who may soon begin dying of cholera, diarrhea and other diseases. This isn't logic by our standards, but it is logic by the standards of Burma's leaders. Which is why we have to assume that the regime's fear of foreign relief workers could even increase as the crisis grows, threatening the regime further.

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