New Internationalist

Burma: Seeing but not believing

Of all the images that have emerged from cyclone-hit Burma, the most shocking for me were the most long distance ones. NASA released satellite images of the country before and after the cyclone. The ‘after' image is barely recognizable - the amount of the Irrawaddy delta in the south that is now blue instead of green is staggering. The southern outline of the country bears no relation anymore to what one would expect to see.

On television news I have been seeing other images. Panoramic or aerial shots of the flooding and devastation. People in hospital being visited by concerned generals or climbing into rescue helicopters. Others numbly receiving packets of food from soldiers in a rather orderly fashion. I find these problematic.

Burma is shut off from foreign journalists (unless they are invited in by the military regime to cover specific showpiece events). Western news channels have had to rely on state run television for their moving images.

So while the death toll is now officially 22,000 (unofficially up to 50,000), with 40,000 people missing and a million homeless; and while the regime is coming in for bitter criticism for its foot-dragging over opening up to international aid and the utter incompetence of its own relief effort so far (which has reached only a tiny fraction of the people affected), we are watching on our television screens soldiers handing over food parcels. We can see nothing of the grief or rage of the people going hungry and thirsty (many water sources are too contaminated to use). They do not talk on camera. Instead they sit obediently in the state TV images, taking what's given to them. And we watch them, while listening to the numbers and being told of the heightening crisis.

It's inevitable I suppose, but it still turns my stomach. The reality is that the Burmese regime first bargained with the UN to get its hands on the relief money, rather than let in international aid workers, despite knowing it hasn't the wherewithal or expertise even with the cash in hand to mount such a gigantic relief effort. The reality is that it was warned by Indian meteorologists at least 48 hours before cyclone Nargis hit, but did nothing to evacuate people to safer areas. The reality is that it is still going ahead with its proposed referendum on its phony new constitution on 10 May at a time of such national calamity. (It will be delayed by two weeks, we are informed, in the worst hit areas.)

The regime's most visible opposition, the beleaguered National League for Democracy has released a statement lamenting this mess of priorities:

‘We haven't seen effective assistance to storm victims, even though the authorities have declared (regions) as disaster zones. ...It is extremely unacceptable because they are giving priority to the constitution process without respecting the social difficulties faced by people during this disaster.'

Meanwhile reports are also leaking out of civil servants going AWOL, deserting Naypyidaw, the new capital in the jungle, which remained unaffected  and rushing to try and help their families left behind in Rangoon.

Their flight is a clear reflection of the need to respond now to this crisis.

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