Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Disaster aid for dictatorships

The tragedy that has beset Burma has according to the BBC now claimed 22,000 lives with another 41,000 missing. The cyclone has destroyed so many populated areas near the coast that the need for emergency aid and assistance is clear. In many countries it would be a simple matter of the relevant government allowing government and non-government aid agencies in to provide shelter, food, clothing, water and medical assistance to those now on the brink of their lives, but this is Burma.
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Burma is a military dictatorship, a particularly nasty one, and has been so since 1962. It suppresses dissent with little mercy, and the military exists primarily to keep the government in power. It is notable how absent the military has been during this civil defence emergency, clearly it doesn't exist to help the population.
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You see there is little point giving aid or money to the Burmese government - for the simple reason it wont do anything with it except to enrich itself. It is corrupt and murderous, and few want this regime to do anything short of collapse. It is telling that the French government has been explicit about this, with French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner saying that only 200,000 euros is being donated because "we don't really trust the way the Burmese ministry would use the money". Indeed.
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The USA has promised to come to the assistance of Burma, but only on condition that US disaster assessment teams can enter and be in control of searching for missing people and handing out aid. The Bush Administration too doesn't want the Burmese government restricting or taking any of the aid. No doubt some will accuse it of wanting to spy or not caring about the Burmese people - the same accusers probably also protest Burmese human rights, so are never happy.
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Of course the World Food Programme of the UN is throwing food aid at the country, who knows how much of that will be quietly taken by the regime to keep the military fed in fear of insurrection. The United Nations, after all, is morally blind to whether a member state is a dictatorship or a free country.
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So what SHOULD be done? Should Burma be, despite the toll, left to be, on the basis that aid will more often than not be confiscated by the military, and that any aid sustains the regime as much as the public? Is it not possible that the cyclone could weaken the regime enough that it can allow for some civil insurrection to bring it down? After all -the biggest problem Burma has is not the cyclone - the military government has impoverished, killed and imprisoned the population for decades.
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Or should aid flow, on the basis that most Burmese have neither the means to resist the regime, and are facing certain death without food, shelter and medical help? Is it better for them to see western aid agencies and organisations giving help directly, and it is simply human benevolence to help those who can't help themselves in a time of dire need?
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I say the latter, but conditionally. It is tragic to simply ignore what has happened, but Burma has to accept aid on the terms of those who offer it. That means if the US is willing to send in teams of experts at rescue and groups to rehabilitate destroyed villages, it does so on its terms. It means bypassing the military and if there is interference, then aid workers should leave. There is ample testimony that North Korea took western aid during the 1990s floods for high level party and military first, with many people receiving next to nothing. This can't happen in Burma. Medicins Sans Frontieres is one private aid agency that withdrew from North Korea out of frustration that it couldn't deliver assistance directly to those in need. If the Burmese authorities wont accept this, then the blood of the Burmese people will be on their hands again. Certainly the few media outlets the Burmese can access (illegally) should broadcast this loud and clear (BBC World Service and Voice of America in Burmese).
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So if you wish to donate to aid efforts for Burma, be warned. Donate to private charities that are careful to use their own people to assist people directly, not donate to government. That means ignoring UN organisations.
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I note also that the hosts of the Olympics this year have said nothing in their official organ about helping "Myanmar" but have faithfully reported their fellow dictatorship's news. Yes, the People's Republic of China is such a great world citizen isn't it?

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