Just how callous can governments be?

And why the option of airdropping relief supplies to Burma’s disaster victims should not be dismissed

The numbers the Burmese junta killed while suppressing pro-democracy protests last year fade in comparison to the numbers they’ve killed in the last two weeks.

India’s state-run Meteorological Department said it had alerted Burma two days before the cyclone struck. The department’s spokesman, B P Yadav told reporters in New Delhi on Wednesday: “Forty-eight hours in advance we informed the Burma weather department about the likely area of landfall as well as time and intensity of the cyclone.” [The Irrawaddy]

“I’ve never seen an emergency situation such as this before,” said Greg Beck, Asia regional director of the International Rescue Committee. “A week after the disaster, the entire humanitarian community is still sitting in another country, outside the affected area, looking for means to access the disaster zone.” [WP]

Burma has deported the few aid workers in the country after declaring it is “not ready” for foreign search and rescue teams following a devastating cyclone. [Herald Sun]

Update:Dozens of aid experts are reported to be waiting for visas in neighbouring Thailand – but the Burmese embassy there has now closed for a public holiday until next Tuesday. [‘BBC’]

The larger point is that there are few instruments to hold the junta’s leaders criminally liable for these deaths. Sins of omission are seldom punished.

Frustrated by the junta’s refusal to open its doors to international humanitarian relief, the US state department proposed airdropping relief supplies without their permission. It was shot down by the US defence secretary on the grounds that it would violate Burma’s sovereignty. Similarly, the French foreign minister proposed an international humanitarian intervention under the “responsibility to protect”. The usual UN logjam stopped that. (China, Vietnam, South Africa and Russia argued against the UN Security Council getting involved. “China’s envoy compared the crisis to a deadly heat wave in France in 2003, questioning why the Security Council should step in now when it did not do so in the French case”)

At times like this it is useful to recall Operation Poomalai (Eagle Mission 4).

Cooking up a relief race in Burma

Reporters or imaginers?

“Tiger vs Dragon again, this time to help Myanmar” announces a headline in DNA. Seema Guha, who wrote that article, ‘reports’ that India and China are competing to send relief to cyclone-hit Burma.

It’s a very good example of very poor journalism.

First, it is undeniable that countries can use their participation in international humanitarian relief efforts, in part, to boost their stature. It is also undeniable that Burma is among the countries in the region where the geopolitical competition between India and China manifests itself. But to link these together and claim that there is some kind of a humanitarian relief race on is absurd. Perhaps Ms Guha could point out cases in the neighbourhood where India did not intervene because there was no geopolitical prize. She can’t, because there isn’t one. India would have participated in humanitarian relief efforts even if, and perhaps especially if, no other country had come forward. So, what ‘race’?

Second, the report presents facts that contradict its conclusions. It announces that “China was first off the block when it pledged $1 million as initial aid for relief and rehabilitation. On Wednesday, a Chinese Boeing 747-400 landed in Yangon carrying 60 tonnes of emergency relief material.” But it then goes on to say that “Earlier on Monday, two Indian Navy ships, INS Rana and Kirpal, were dispatched with initial aid from Port Blair. The ships reached Yangon Port early on Tuesday morning and anchored four miles from the harbour, awaiting offloading.” So how is it that China was “first off the block” when its aircraft arrived a day after the Indian ships?

Third, Ms Guha forces her own conclusions down your throat, despite the people she quotes saying the very opposite. Both the people interviewed—a JNU professor and a foreign ministry official—emphatically denied that India’s relief operations are motivated by a “race”. Yet, Ms Guha and her editors saw nothing out of place in publishing the report as they have.

It might even have been excusable if Ms Guha’s article had appeared as an op-ed. But it’s being offered as reportage. What a shame.

How do you help a country like Burma?

The tricky business of delivering aid to victims of a natural disaster who are also victims of a repressive regime

A closed regime. Media controls. A category 4 cyclone. Damaged infrastructure. Broken communication links. Death toll first in the hundreds, rapidly upped to the tens of thousands.

From ReliefWebIt’s highly likely that the Burmese junta can’t cope with the disaster. Worse, its isolation is making a bad situation much worse. The international response is hobbled by the lack of communication channels, common frameworks and operating procedures.

India was among the first to respond. India’s military base at Port Blair, in the Andaman & Nicobar islands has some capacity address humanitarian disasters in the Bay of Bengal region. But while India dispatched INS Rana and INS Kirpan with emergency relief material—tents, medicine and food—the lack of communications (and previously agreed contingency plans) means that at the time of sailing, the ships didn’t quite know which port they could access.

The foreign ministry states that India is considering “further immediate relief and medical supplies, including by air”. Thailand is reportedly preparing to send supplies by air. Burma has also accepted Australian help. These responses will be constrained by Burma’s capacity to co-ordinate the use of its airspace, airports and landing strips. According to some weather reports, Cyclone Nargis could be followed by an even stronger cyclone, adding in a factor of urgency to this matter.

Ultimately, the delivery of relief supplies to the affected people depends largely on the Tatmadaw, Burma’s armed forces. The scheduled referendum introduces a political complication. That the junta is deeply unpopular is clear enough: but a botched response to the cyclone might well break the camel’s back. [Cyclone Bhola struck East Pakistan in late 1971, also ahead of elections, and set off a chain of events that led to the birth of Bangla Desh]

The problem is—the generals know this too. They could decide that the presence of foreign volunteers, media and military personnel is a risk to the survival of their regime, even if it means that the humanitarian response suffers as a result.

The toughest question for India and the rest of the world is should the world’s humanitarian response become an instrument to effect political change in Burma? For, isn’t releasing the Burmese people from the clutches of a brutal, repressive regime also, in the end, a humanitarian act? The answer is yes. As The Acorn has argued before, doing so is in India’s interests.

Related Links: NASA’s Earth Observatory has “before and after” images of the affected area; a briefing from the Global Disaster Alert and Co-ordination System