The tragedy of Burma

The loathsome government of Burma is an extreme example of an all-too-common phenomenon. Too many people in power have a cruel desire to control everything in the society they are meant to serve. They wish to manipulate the media, send out only positive images of themselves, and exclude, punish or destroy anyone who wishes to disagree with them. The military junta produce ludicrous television pictures of a happy people gratefully receiving aid from the army, at a time when thousands are close to death without shelter, without enough clean water or food, and prey to disease. They seek to ban any foreigner from coming to their country to help, as they fear they will send back words and pictures reporting the truth, and fear they will expose the gross inadequacies of the regime’s response to such a major human tragedy.

I admire the bravery of the anonymous BBC reporter who has sent back vivid and worrying words to describe the tragedy unfolding in the delta. I admire the patient work of the humanitarian organisations, trying to persuade the military government that they should be allowed to help. I regret the clumsy, attention-seeking intervention of the Lib Dem leader, Mr Clegg, who suggested dropping food supplies from helicopters or planes without the permission of the Burmese government. Has he checked that the military regime would leave such planes unmolested and not treat them as enemy aircraft? Has he thought about the problems of the terrain in the flooded delta, and how difficult it would prove to retrieve many of the large packages sent from the skies? How would he prevent the junta seeking to intercept those parcels which could be reached, and taking them for their own purposes? Did he not hear the impatience in the response of those who are trying to negotiate an agreement with this dreadful government? We all share his wish to do something, but believe the international community can do more if it works with, and through, people on the ground in Burma.

The Burma regime is clearly paranoid. It remembers that the US, EU and UK have all condemned it in the past and have imposed sanctions. It fears they will use this opportunity to expose it and will be intimidated by proposals for unilateral western intervention. It naively believes it can control the information, words and pictures coming out. Fortunately, in a footloose world where westerners are already in Burma for other purposes, and in a world where there are so many cameras, mobile phones and communications equipment, pictures and information will flow out to tell the rest about us of the sad plight of so many Burmese.

The international community wants to help, and can help. To help effectively the regime has to be persuaded to take in not just more food and water, but also equipment to deliver the supplies to the dispossessed, and technical assistance to begin the recovery. That cannot be done by aerial bombardment. It can only be done by negotiation.

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10 Comments

  1. Bazman
    Posted May 10, 2008 at 11:43 am | Permalink

    They want all of the nations wealth for themselves and believe this is right. A problem in Britain too.

  2. Cliff
    Posted May 10, 2008 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

    I agree with most of what you say, it is indeed a disaster on a massive scale.

    However, looking at it from a slightly different angle, perhaps the authorities don't want to let teams from the UK/EU or the USA into the country, in case these countries plant spies in there.
    I wonder if the UK would welcome teams from Iran or Syria or North Korea if we were ever in a similar position and give them free reign to go where they pleased, for some reason I doubt it.

    Perhaps, if our ONLY desire is to help the common people affected by the cyclone, then we should send our aid via the Government of Burma's trusted friends, such as China. My only concern is that the aid may well not get through to the common population that has been affected, and instead be impounded by the military for their use.

    My initial thoughts about an air drop were, what a good idea, however, having given it some thought, I agree with you. It is likely the Government of Burma would treat these aircraft as hostile and that could lead to serious consequenses.

    The situation in Burma appears to mirror in some ways, what happens the world over, the poor always suffer the most whilst the great and good are relatively unaffected.
    I really do not know what the answer is to the problems in Burma, but you are right to say it needs to be done through negotiation rather than conflict or force.

  3. Rose
    Posted May 10, 2008 at 12:54 pm | Permalink

    It is astonishing just how many people in public life, not just Mr Clegg, can't seem to see the situation from the other side. They think it is illogical for the Burmese regime to be behaving as it is, and express themselves with all the outrage of universally triumphant Western liberalism. But since Burma has been ruled with very different priorities from Mr Clegg's all along, why the shock and indignation? It reminds me of the way people reacted to the massacre in the Square of Heavenly Peace – as if there had not been all those years of Revolution and Cultural Revolution before that. Frank Field is so much more grown up (why don't the Liberals elect him as their next leader?) in saying we have tried lecturing the Burmese regime for years and it hasn't worked. We can only work with what is there, and we need to be a bit intelligent and constructive about it – and quickly.

  4. Rose
    Posted May 10, 2008 at 1:41 pm | Permalink

    PS I note this, on Cranmer's page, a small illustration of the point that people don't get too worked up about Burma most of the time:

    "Between January 2003 and March 2008, tiny Israel – its population not half that of metropolitan Cairo's – was condemned no fewer than 635 times. The runners-up were Sudan at 280, the Democratic Republic of the Congo at 209, and Burma at 183. North Korea was cited a mere 60 times, a third as many as the United States. "

  5. Posted May 10, 2008 at 9:47 pm | Permalink

    It's not very often I agree with a Tory, let alone as esteemed a personage as John Redwood, but there is a lot of truth in this piece.

    The bottom line for the Burmese junta is the protection of their privilege and power. It's the same in Saudi Arabia, Iran, China, North Korea, etc. If we want aid to get to the people who need it, negotiations have to begin.

  6. Matthew Reynolds
    Posted May 10, 2008 at 10:35 pm | Permalink

    Nick Clegg shows that showing off by talking rubbish is no subsitute for being a mature statesman who can deal with a crisis . Hearing about his student debating hall nonsense is proof positive that the Lib Dems are not fit to run the UK government . Pointless & irrelevant people can say what they like because they will never be in office & so will not have to deal with the harsh realities to governing. The Lib Dems should bring back Sir Menzies Campbell as their FCO Spokesman , Simon Hughes as Home Office Spokesman & keep Dr Vince Cable as their Shadow Chancellor as they all excelled in those posts. When in doubt that lot could just go on TV in a crisis while their ‘Leader’ should be sidelined – they need maturity & professionalism not stupidity.

    The Burmese experience shows just how evil the idea of a dictatorship is . Like Mugabe that vile junta is prepared to sacrifice its own people for no good reason & the sooner the neo- Nazi regime is Burma is deposed , its leaders brought to justice and a democratic republic is set up the better . Let democratic capitalism & foriegn aid bring the Burmese people out of this nightmare. Like the Iraqi people prior to March 2003 Burma’s population has suffered too long while the West has not done enough to help them. Any religious types reading this blog – now is the time to pray for the people of Burma.

  7. Matthew Reynolds
    Posted May 10, 2008 at 11:35 pm | Permalink

    Nick Clegg shows that showing off by talking rubbish is no subsitute for being a mature statesman who can deal with a crisis . Hearing about his student debating hall nonsense is proof positive that the Lib Dems are not fit to run the UK government . Pointless & irrelevant people can say what they like because they will never be in office & so will not have to deal with the harsh realities to governing. The Lib Dems should bring back Sir Menzies Campbell as their FCO Spokesman , Simon Hughes as Home Office Spokesman & keep Dr Vince Cable as their Shadow Chancellor as they all excelled in those posts. When in doubt that lot could just go on TV in a crisis while their 'Leader' should be sidelined – they need maturity & professionalism not stupidity.

    The Burmese experience shows just how evil the idea of a dictatorship is . Like Mugabe that vile junta is prepared to sacrifice its own people for no good reason & the sooner the neo- Nazi regime is Burma is deposed , its leaders brought to justice and a democratic republic is set up the better . Let democratic capitalism & foriegn aid bring the Burmese people out of this nightmare. Like the Iraqi people prior to March 2003 Burma's population has suffered too long while the West has not done enough to help them. Any religious types reading this blog – now is the time to pray for the people of Burma.

  8. adam
    Posted May 11, 2008 at 1:43 am | Permalink

    now the Bush regime and FEMA behaved exactly the same way over Katrina except even worse, they refused help from inside their own country!!!

    Barely a peep about that
    in the mainstream media. Ever.

    You mention the concept of image, trying to present Burma in the best light.
    We have seen this closer to home recently, Jersey and later Austria. Nobody does anything
    about it.

    What did (pejorative phrase left out) our gov. offer, 5 million?

  9. Stuart Fairney
    Posted May 11, 2008 at 5:07 pm | Permalink

    To compare BUSH and FEMA to the Burmese Junta shows a truly bizarre grasp of facts.

  10. mike stallard
    Posted May 11, 2008 at 7:56 pm | Permalink

    Thailand depends for its success on one man – the magnificent King Bhumibol.
    He is now fairly elderly.
    When he dies, all hell is likely to break loose in Thailand and no doubt, Burma will spread into that unhappy place.

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    John Redwood won a free place at Kent College, Canterbury, He graduated from Magdalen College Oxford, has a DPhil and is a fellow of All Souls College. A businessman by background, he has been a director of NM Rothschild merchant bank and chairman of a quoted industrial PLC.

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