(Last of a three-part series)
It has been nearly a month since the United Nations (UN), on behalf of the international community, including civil society organisations forged an agreement with the Burmese junta. Three weeks since cyclone Nargis devastated communities in the Irrawaddy delta on May 3, 2008, the junta yielded to the global clamor to open the country and allow aid to reach survivors. But just days following the agreement brokered by the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), the junta reneged from its commitment.
Logistics and communications experts from the World Food Programme were only given one-day permits to visit the delta. Only 45 UN and other foreign aid workers were allowed to enter the Irrawaddy. The State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) continued to rebuff much of foreign aid, including those inside the ships waiting along Burma's coastlines. Worse, it closed down several shelters and forced survivors to go back to the delta at the expense of starvation and even death.
Amnesty International (AI) reported several incidents where survivors were driven out of shelters, including monasteries and either loaded them into trucks or ordered to return to the villages. “[AI] has been able to confirm over 30 instances and accounts of forcible displacement by the SPDC in the aftermath of the cyclone, but anecdotal evidence from numerous sources strongly suggests a much higher number.” Survivors are also prohibited to beg for food. One was even brutally beaten by a police office.
While SPDC may solicit assistance from China, it is clear to them that the emergency and rescue phase is now over. For them, it is business as usual and for the rest of the world, back the more intensive censorship and human rights violations. At work is the institutionalised mechanism of muzzling information and media, in complete disregard of the human and social cost.
Recently, SPDC's newspaper, the New Light of Myanmar, accused foreign media of “invent[ing] stories” on the impact of the cyclone to the communities along the Irrawaddy. “The people who are in touch with the situation feel that the despicable and inhumane acts by local and foreign anti-government groups and self-centred persons and their exploiting of the storm victims are absolutely obnoxious," the newspaper claimed about the DVDs containing shocking footages in the delta.
The astronomical death tolls, along with the anxiety and poverty of the living could have been mitigated had the junta heeded pieces of information and disseminated these to the communities. Since the 26th of April, the Indian Meteorological Department issued 41 warnings about the then approaching cyclone from the Bay of Bengal. The Bangkok-based Asian Disaster Preparedness Centre (ADPC) similarly issued warnings to the Burmese government. However, SPDC chose to ignore these warnings and only announced the arrival of Nargis on the 2nd of May, the day the cyclone hit Burma.
Even as state-media announced the expected impact of cyclone Nargis, some civilians ignored it. "Though my daughters said they knew about the announcement, I was not aware of the cyclone because I am not interested in watching TV, and there was no public announcement in the locality,” shared a Rangoon resident.
The news would have been more credible, had it been broadcast earlier and repeatedly. In this way, not only would have people reached a higher ground, but the women would have also been able to contribute even as they perform their traditional roles of preparing enough clothes and food for their families.
As Sean Hawkey of the World Association for Christian Communication explained, “The common media focus portrays disasters as 'Acts of God,' independent of human influence, as if there was nothing we could do about them. A more empowering media approach to disasters highlights our part in disasters...The failure of media to assume these preventive functions is simply disastrous.”
In the aftermath of the cyclone, communication lines, including the internet were damaged, further complicating whatever coordination mechanisms civil servants and soldiers have adopted. Aggravating the situation is the refusal of SPDC to allow the broadcast of images and information on the ground. Foreign media continues to be banned from entering the country while on many occasions, foreigners in the country, including aid workers, were not allowed to film or even enter certain areas. Information gathering by individuals who are most capable of performing this task in the present context is crucial in determining and delivering the goods and services which affected communities need most.
“The junta’s attempt to keep this South-east Asian country’s worst natural disaster from the public eye is part of a strategy that has become painfully clear.... The regime in Burma...wants to give the impression locally and internationally that it has the relief efforts under control,” Marwaan Macan-Markar of IPS News asserted.
As an aid worker shared to the Associated Press (AP) during the first few days of the cylone aftermath, "The government wants total control of the situation although they can't provide much and they have no experience in relief efforts. We have to report to them every step of the way, every decision we make. Their eyes are everywhere, monitoring what we do, who we talk to, what we bring in and how much."
With the limited penetration of aid workers and the media of the delta, frustration further lingers. Brad Adams of Human Rights Watch-Asia lamented the disinterest of Burma's allies, China and Russia, whose veto power, can render irrelevant the rest of the world's concern over the human rights violations against Burmese citizens:
“The world sees this as callous neglect of the welfare of the citizens of Burma, but the regime continues in its self-delusional path [where] the military is the only institution capable of keeping the country united and bring development. But development never comes – except for the generals and their business cronies, who are now fabulously rich and lead five-star lives...So why doesn't the world react strongly?”
Adams, Brad. (4 June 2008). “Hope Vetoed.” Retrieved from Human Rights Watch on June 12, 2008, http://www.hrw.org/english/docs/2008/06/04/burma19028.htm
Altsean Burma. (9 May 2008). “Disaster” (Briefing Paper). Retrieved from Altsean-Burma on May 12, 2008, http://www.altsean.org/Reports/Disaster.php
Amnesty International (5 June 2008). “Myanmar Briefing: Human rights concerns a month after Cyclone Nargis.” Retrieved on from Amnesty International on June 12, 2008, http://www.amnesty.org/en/library/asset/ASA16/013/2008/en/ 8592e938-32e5-11dd-863f-e9cd398f74da/asa160132008eng.html
Associated Press. (12 May 2008). “Bodies litter Burma delta; survivors focus on staying alive.” Retrieved from The Irrawaddy on May 12, 2008, http://www.irrawaddy.org/article.php?art_id=11971
Associated Press. (11 May 2008). “Misery in Laputta.” Retrieved from The Irrawaddy on May 12, 2008, http://www.irrawaddy.org/article.php?art_id=11941
Dissanayake, Samanthi. (4 June 2008). “New challenges for delta aid workers.” Retrieved from British Broadcasting Corporation on June 10, 2008, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asia-pacific/7432874.stm
Hawkey, S. (n.d.). “Media in disaster, a disaster in media.” Retrieved from The World Association for Christian Communications on May 12, 2008, http://www.wacc.org.uk/wacc/publications/media_action/archive/232_feb_2001/ media_in_disasters_a_disaster_in_media
Makan-Markar, M. (2008) “Burma: Foreigners, cameras banned in cyclone hit areas.” Retrieved from Inter-Press News on May 12, 2008, http://www.ipsnews.net/news.asp?idnews=42348
Tun, Aung Hla. (6 June 2008). Myanmar junta slams citizens over cyclone report. Retrieved from Reuters on June 12, 2008, http://www.reuters.com/article/asiaCrisis/idUSBKK31372