Saturday, May 17, 2008

Myanmar: sealed off from the world

LYSE DOUCET

Globe and Mail Update

MAE SOT, Thailand — As soon as you cross the Thai-Myanmar friendship bridge, you have to shift perspective. From driving on the left-hand side in Thailand, you suddenly veer to the right. The sharp zigzag is just the first clue that, in Myanmar, the world looks different.

The former British colony drove on the left until 1970, when its first military ruler, Ne Win, was supposedly advised by his soothsayer to "move to the right." The nation of 48 million has been subjected to this kind of eccentric rule since 1962, when the generals seized power and largely sealed it off from the world.

But its fearful view of outsiders has been magnified on a global stage ever since the country was hit by Cyclone Nargis, the worst natural disaster in its living memory. Two weeks have gone by and, despite the mounting fears of a second "man-made" disaster — many more deaths from disease, if not starvation — the ruling junta holds the line: Aid from friendly countries and agencies is welcome, but not the foreign relief teams that want to distribute it.

Unprecedented and astonishing is what the United Nations calls this response. Outrageous and shocking is the verdict of those warning of a disaster of "unimaginable proportions." It has rung alarm bells around the world, triggering defiant calls for "forced intervention" if Myanmar's generals do not open the door on their own.

Their obstinacy is like nothing Asia has seen, even from other tough regimes.

When the Indian Ocean tsunami devastated Aceh province in northern Sumatra on Dec. 26, 2004, the Indonesian military in the region soon realized it had to loosen its grip, even though it was locked in battle with separatist rebels. Within two days, as the death toll climbed, Vice-President Yusuf Kalla told journalists: "Tell the world. Everyone can come," and we marvelled at how restrictions disappeared overnight. Waves of aid agencies and journalists landed, even travelling to areas controlled by the insurgent Gerakan Aceh Merdeka (GAM).

Then, almost a year later, when an earthquake ripped through the mountains in Pakistani-controlled Kashmir, the military also eased controls that had long blocked access to large parts of a fiercely disputed territory along the Indian frontier.

The sports stadium in the capital, Muzzaffarabad, was transformed into a makeshift airfield with a steady stream of craft landing and departing. Pakistani soldiers never stopped thanking aid agencies for their help and journalists for telling their story.

Now, even hard-line China has opened its doors and asked for help to cope with its devastating earthquake. Will Myanmar ever follow suit?

From the border town of Mae Sot, aid workers have been crossing the Thai-Myanmar Friendship, a gently sloping ribbon of concrete baked mercilessly by a blazing sun, day in, day out, hoping to secure visas to allow them to bring their skills and supplies to more than 2.5 million desperate survivors.

"No one has ever shut the door to us," remarks an astonished Mike Larsen of the Toronto-based Global Medic, a rapid-response team that has worked extensively in disasters and emergency situations across Asia.

"We keep going to the border crossing," he adds. "The customs authorities just turn away and talk on their mobile telephones. They don't even want to deal with us."

Mae Sot is a last resort of aid workers trying to get in. It's a long way from areas hit by the cyclone, but many agencies have wasted precious hours in consulates pleading for access, and are growing desperate.

The few journalists who have managed to enter Myanmar posing as tourists and then tried to make their way to the worst-hit area, the Irrawaddy Delta, have found themselves hiding in paddy fields and hotel rooms to escape military intelligence officers furiously hunting them down.

READING THE GENERALS' MINDS

As well as pleading for access in Myanmar's consulates around the world, trying to comprehend the thinking of the generals has also absorbed valuable time. It's the stuff of speculation, guarded whispers and seasoned observation.

Maung Zarni, founder of the Free Burma Coalition and a research fellow at Oxford University, says that "the military is not monolithic."

But, he cautions, "there is an institutionalized madness at the very, very top and the rest of the generals fall in line."

Reports from inside the country that are impossible to confirm but cited by many say Lieutenant-General Thein Sein, the Prime Minister, went to the country's remote capital of Naypyidaw shortly after the cyclone struck to tell military ruler General Than Shwe about the scale of this disaster and that they needed help.

By all accounts, he was overruled. For the reclusive 75-year-old general, his overriding priority was a constitutional referendum, which went ahead, one week after the cyclone, whatever the cost to the relief effort. Officially, the referendum is meant to move Myanmar a step closer to multiparty rule as part of a "road map to democracy." Critics called it a sham to legitimize military rule.

"The generals know there is only a thin veneer of legitimacy that separates them from their people," explains a senior United Nations official who, like anyone who works with the government, wants to remain anonymous.

"They'd lose face if foreign rescue teams were seen to be travelling around Myanmar saving their people from this disaster."

In the midst of such deep xenophobia, small shifts loom large. Even the decision to accept any foreign aid was significant. "In the first 72 hours, I had some optimism," recalls Myanmar watcher Sean Turnell, an economist at Australia's Macquarie University.

"The generals crossed an important line and I wondered whether rational elements would step out of the shadows."

SHOUTING DOESN'T HELP

Being located on the border has made Mae Sot home to tens of thousands of Myanmar migrant workers, refugees and displaced people. Among them are many outspoken activists who have long pondered the vexing question of change in their homeland.

Asked if there is any chance Myanmar's rulers will open up, Khun Myint Tun, an exiled member of the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD), draws his answer from seven years spent in solitary confinement.

"I passed through military intelligence and stood five days and five nights on a wooden stool, not allowed to sleep," he says. "They are heartless and have no wish to change."

However, as a chorus of criticism grows louder outside, a different tone has emerged from aid agencies working inside: They insist that shouting just doesn't help.

"It only makes the military dig in its heels further," says one aid official reached by telephone in Rangoon, Myanmar's largest city.

Charities like the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and a range of non-governmental agencies, have been based in the former capital for years. They have responded and achieved results with their skilled local staff and more co-operative local officials.

Also speaking by telephone from Rangoon, Canadian Andrew Kirkwood, who heads the British charity Save the Children, points to efforts of the local business community. It generously pitched in to buy relief goods locally and has been annoyed by all the negative media coverage.

But everyone agrees that whatever good is being accomplished — by the military's limited resources, the aid agencies lucky enough to be on the ground and an accelerated airlift — is dwarfed by the scale of this disaster. There simply aren't enough helicopters, trucks and boats to reach all the survivors.

The UN believes that at least 100,000 are already dead and that number could rise sharply if the aid effort isn't scaled up soon, and significantly. Grim reports from the Irrawaddy Delta speak of a trail of devastation, of rotting animal carcasses and human corpses contaminating the water, of hungry survivors desperately begging for food, and entire villages having nothing more than a cup of rice to share. And now there are warnings of more heavy rain to come.

The situation stands in stark contrast with the aftermath of Monday's earthquake in neighbouring China.

"China has massive capacity and, by international standards, good preparations for earthquakes," says Amanda Pitt, a UN official based in Bangkok. "But it has understood the disaster it's facing is beyond the capacity of any one country to deal with."

Foreign rescue teams have already arrived to assist in an urgent race against time. Journalists reaching the epicentre of the quake are sending wrenching accounts of heroic efforts to pull survivors from the rubble and of families in unbearable grief.

As the world shares their pain, it may reach out to help China's victims at the expense of Myanmar's desperate citizens.

EMERGENCY FORCE READY

In an especially cruel irony, U.S.-Thai military exercises, code-named Cobra Gold, were getting under way just as the cyclone struck. The theme? How to prepare for a multinational response in the event of a major natural disaster.

As a result, about 11,000 members of the U.S. armed forces, a large number of aircraft and four ships were in the region, along with three U.S. Navy ships in the Bay of Bengal, all at the ready if Myanmar's generals gave the green light.

So convinced were they of a chance to do good, Admiral Timothy J. Keating, head of the U.S. Pacific Command, flew on the first ever flight of U.S. military aid, which took goods into Rangoon after a week of arduous negotiations. He had hoped to persuade the authorities to grant more access, including permission to distribute the U.S. aid. Instead, all he got was a photo opportunity on the tarmac.

"We're an optimistic people, we like to believe people will do the right thing," says a U.S. Marine whose team has flown to Mae Sot to check a nearby airfield for possible use.

Do they really believe they can crack Myanmar? "The higher up the hierarchy you go, the more excited they get," one officer remarks.

Having seen how a timely and well-meaning humanitarian intervention can boost U.S. ratings even in places like Pakistan, where there is strong dose of anti-Americanism, generosity also makes good political sense. One Western diplomat with extensive experience in the region regrets that, in the immediate aftermath of the cyclone, the United States was too quick to politicize the situation.

First lady Laura Bush, who has made Myanmar one of her causes, called on the military government to accept a U.S. disaster-response team and scolded the generals for failing to alert their people to the approaching danger. Observers say this only reinforced the regime's deep suspicion of a country that has all but advocated its overthrow.

As the crisis moved into its second week, more visas were granted and the door seemed to open a little wider to allow in expertise from such neighbours as China, Thailand, India and Bangladesh. The two countries have historical differences, but the Thais have tried to persuade the generals the world has good intentions.

"They're suspicious of countries like the United States," Thai Foreign Minister Noppadon Pattama said in an interview. "But we're telling them this is just aid. There are no conditions, no politics."

'DAY OF RECKONING'

At the end of the day, the junta must face its own people. "There will be a day of reckoning," says Prof. Jason Abbott, a Myanmar expert at the University of Surrey in Britain. "There will be political consequences, not in days but weeks and months."

An aid official who spent five years in Rangoon says that "Myanmar is more like Zimbabwe than North Korea. The borders are more porous, people can access foreign media, so it's not hermetically sealed."

And the activists in Mae Sot seem to put much faith in "sparks" that can lead to change. One example was the sudden rise in fuel prices last September that lit the fire of street protests and was met by a brutal suppression by the military. Looking for silver linings in what are literally dark clouds has become part of the story of disasters.

But outcomes are not always shining. Although the 2004 tsunami led to a peace deal in Aceh, it also contributed to a worsening of tensions in Sri Lanka and the eventual collapse of a six-year-old ceasefire between the government and Tamil Tiger rebels.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon has called on Mynamar to "put people's lives first," but when he tried to call Gen. Than Shwe from New York, no one even bothered to answer the phone. Some European nations are now urging the UN to invoke its much-vaunted principle of a "responsibility to protect" when governments fail to safeguard their own people. French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner's call to go ahead and drop aid in the disaster zone initially met a resounding silence, but now a heated debate is growing in the face of what British Foreign Secretary David Miliband condemns as the regime's "malign neglect."

Many observers here now believe Myanmar's policy is fixed. The government already says it is moving from emergency response to reconstruction in some areas.

But a colleague who has just returned from the Irrawaddy Delta says she lost count of the corpses she saw along the route. Having done an extensive cleanup in Rangoon, the military has now blocked all roads to the worst-hit areas.

However, she says, local residents are helping journalists get through, and news of what's going on in Myanmar's rice bowl will get out. When it does, the generals may find it just as hard to face their people as it will be to feed them.

Lyse Doucet is a Canadian journalist with BBC World News who covered the 2004 tsunami and the 2005 earthquake in Kashmir.

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