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UN needs to call shots in Myanmar

Jul 08, 2008

The success of Ban Ki-moon’s mission in Myanmar must be measured in the number of lives saved, says an editorial in The Irrawaddy. The UN needs toughen its stand against the military regime that has proved to be untrustworthy despite its promises of smooth access to international aid workers.

Six weeks have passed since Burma’s military leader, Snr-Gen Than Shwe, promised United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon that he would grant international aid workers full access to the cyclone-stricken Irrawaddy delta.

Faced with a potential humanitarian tragedy that could have forced the UN to act upon its “Responsibility to Protect,” Ban was quick to welcome the concession. But doubts about the value of his “breakthrough” remain.

This was not the first time the UN has found itself at the mercy of the Burmese regime’s intransigence. When Ban sent his point man on Burma, Ibrahim Gambari, to meet with the generals earlier this year, they treated him like a whipping boy, venting their outrage at the world’s supposed bias against them.

In Ban’s case, however, a strictly apolitical agenda and pledges of substantial financial assistance helped to smoothen the way for a less confrontational encounter.

But the success of Ban’s mission must ultimately be measured in the number of lives saved, not in promises made by a notoriously untrustworthy junta. And it remains far from clear that the relief efforts being conducted by the Tripartite Core Group, consisting of representatives of the UN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the Burmese junta, are making any significant headway.

According to a report released by the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) on June 30, more than a million cyclone victims have yet to receive any help at all.

Even more disturbing are the comparisons with earlier reports which show that these figures remained unchanged for nearly a month.

A report released on June 13 by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) states that “As of June 4, preliminary estimates indicate that 1.3 million beneficiaries, out of the estimated 2.4 million people affected, have been reached.”

Non-cooperative junta

Why, after more than a month of national and international relief operations, are nearly half the victims of Cyclone Nargis still not receiving any aid?

Although a number of factors come into play, including weather and the scale of the devastation in the delta, it is clear from various independent reports that a large part of the problem has been the Burmese regime, which has done as much to hinder as to help relief efforts.

UN agencies have been careful to avoid pointing the finger at the junta, but they have indicated a number of difficulties that can be traced directly to local bureaucratic hurdles or military interference by the regime.

The OCHA report, for instance, mentions “frequent population movements” as a problem complicating efforts to target groups in need. What it doesn’t say, however, is that in most cases, these movements have not been voluntary, but coerced by military authorities intent on getting villagers out of refugee camps and back to work in their fields.

There have been many other similar issues, including delays with getting permission to send helicopters into the disaster area, a ban on sourcing supplies of rice domestically, and logistical problems stemming from restrictions on the flow of information.

“They (Burmese authorities) obviously didn’t want us in the affected areas with telecommunications equipment,” said a spokesperson for the emergency relief group Telecoms Sans Frontieres.

UN needs tough posturing

None of these obstacles should be acceptable to the UN, which now faces the task of convincing international donors that a credible relief effort has been carried out and that the stage has been set for the “early recovery” phase of the mission.

This could prove to be a hard sell. The UN’s World Food Programme has already warned that its helicopter operations could soon grind to a halt unless more money is forthcoming.

The ASEAN-led Post-Nargis Joint Assessment (PONJA) was supposed to help make the case for more aid, but its role has been undermined by grandstanding by a regional body desperate to show it can make a real difference in Burma after a decade of having no positive impact on the country whatsoever.

The only way to remove lingering doubts about the effectiveness of the relief mission in Burma is for the UN to demonstrate that aid efforts are not being held hostage to the whims of the regime.

Later this month, UN special envoy Gambari will return to Burma for another punishing round of reconciliation talks with a regime that sees no need for compromise with the democratic opposition.

His boss, Ban Ki-moon, has made a “firm commitment and assurances [to] work very hard to help the Myanmar people to enjoy genuine freedom and democracy.” But if he does not do more to hold Than Shwe to his word, his own promises will sound hollow.

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