BURMA: No place for profiteering, referendum amid devastation
News is increasingly coming from the areas outside of Rangoon about the extent of devastation in Burma wreaked by Cyclone Nargis. In the Irrawaddy Delta region in particular, the towns of Bogalay, Laputta and Pantanaw and surrounding areas are reported to have been flattened, and the divisional capital, Bassein, greatly damaged. According to the government, at least 10,000 people are now believed to have died in Bogalay Township alone. Estimates of total deaths are reaching 15,000 although at this time there are no reliable figures. Many deaths are said to have occurred when people gathered in large groups at the sturdiest structures in towns and villages, such as monasteries, and these too collapsed.
The reports that the government has accepted assistance from abroad are good, but it must not hesitate to open its doors in order to alleviate the needs of its people, and allow for independent monitoring of the delivery of this emergency aid. Clearly, the authorities in Burma are completely incapable of responding to a tragedy of this scale and will be heavily dependent on outside help to avert an even bigger tragedy of starvation and disease caused by a lack of safe drinking water. At this stage, local councils, which play an important role in basic administration, are likely to be non-functioning in many areas and still at a loss for what to do in others. They cannot be expected to take up the task of addressing this disaster but so too must they and other agencies not obstruct the work of outside groups coming to render assistance, or try to profit from others nightmare. Already there are reports of, for instance, the fire brigade selling water at vastly inflated prices to desperate citizens. This sort of behaviour is utterly unacceptable and where identified must be addressed immediately. There is no room for corruption or moneymaking amid the destruction. International groups especially will be vigilant to ensure that their efforts reach the affected persons, and the authorities at all levels will have to understand that any attempts to interfere with their work will not be tolerated.
In addition to conditions for the general population, special consideration should be had at this time to the situation of Burmas prisoners. There are reliable although as yet unconfirmed reports that 36 of them were killed and over another 70 wounded when a fire broke out at the central prison as the storm struck and as they broke out of cells to escape it and tried to put it out, guards called police and riot police, who opened fire. An immediate investigation is needed into this incident, and in particular, the International Committee of the Red Cross must at last, as a matter of the greatest urgency, be allowed to resume its work inside the jails.
The reports of some assistance now coming from Burmas neighbours, including Thailand and India, are also good, as is the appeal by the ASEAN secretary general for support from its members, but much more needs to be done. The few planeloads of supplies so far delivered will not go much beyond Rangoons airport, let alone alleviate the amount of suffering in the worst-affected areas. The Asian Human Rights Commission reiterates its call for immediate urgent assistance on a much larger scale to be offered by member states of ASEAN, especially Thailand, Singapore and Malaysia, and from other countries in the region, in particular China, India, South Korea and Japan. The government of China in particular has been surprisingly quiet in the aftermath of this disaster and cannot remain so: as a leading world power with enormous influence and interests in Burma it must demonstrate its goodwill and render what is due to its devastated neighbour. All countries must also consider how to contribute more than mere material assistance and in particular extend their support to technical aid, given the lack of persons with skills and equipment in Burma to deal with what has happened. Indeed, most reports to date suggest that clearing work in Rangoon has so far been conducted by ordinary civilians, and in some places monks, armed with axes, ropes and other very basic tools.
Finally, it is patently obvious that to hold the planned constitutional referendum at this time would be an adventure into the utmost absurdity. The affected areas are among the most populated in the country and perhaps as many as one in four of the enrolled voters will have in some way been affected by the storm. To attempt to conduct the poll under such circumstances would go far beyond the description of a farce that had already been attached to it, and into the realm of the unreal. To expend the energy of government officers on that exercise rather than the needs of the populace at this critical time would do nothing but demonstrate to the entire world the implausibility of the countrys government and everything upon which it pretends to stand. The Asian Human Rights Commission thus joins with those others around the world that have rightly called for the referendum to be put off, and get on with the job of restoring some basic security and dignity to the lives of millions.