The Case of Myanmar
by Khadija Mehter
The devastating Cyclone Nargis that struck the Southeast Asian nation of Myanmar on May 2 has left thousands of people in the Irawaddy Delta and Myanmar's main city Yangon dead. What's even worse is that the government is enabling thousands more to die in its aftermath. Relief experts have stated that the aid being distributed is a fraction of what is needed to help the 1.5 million people facing starvation and disease ("Bodies Flow Into Delta Area of Myanmar," The New York Times, 5-1-08). In the same article, an unnamed resident of Yangon said refugees who had sought shelter in schoolhouses were forced out of the buildings by the military junta so the buildings could be used as polling places. The International Red Cross recently estimated that the combined efforts of relief agencies and the Myanmar government have distributed aid to only 220,000 of up to 1.9 million people left homeless, injured or subject to disease and hunger after the storm - that's just 12% of those in need of help.
Most telling of the military junta's disregard for its people was the junta's plan to go ahead with the constitutional referendum as scheduled while restricting aid deliveries. Critics pointed out that these soldiers, who could otherwise be rescuing survivors, were instead likely to be sent to polling places. The Nargis death toll numbers have now reached nearly 78,000, with an additional 56,000 people missing. Myanmar was already an impoverished state, with a per capita GDP of $1,800. With major media sources painting a grim and rightly criminal picture of the Burmese government, people in the US view the Burmese government with disbelief and disdain over its actions.
To gain insight into the Burmese government's shocking contempt for its people in the wake of the tragic cyclone, we must look at its actions pre-Cyclone Nargis as well as outside factors that have played a role in the human rights abuses that have occurred in Myanmar. As residents of the US, we should be concerned specifically with actions taken by the United States government as well as US corporations. The role played by the United States government in enabling the anti-humanitarian Burmese government to carry out its human rights abuses has not been reported at all in major media outlets in the US, causing our understanding of the situation to be limited and biased.
The Militarization of Aid
The day before Cyclone Nargis hit Myanmar, but when the approach of the monster storm had "already been announced and tracked for a week," President George W. Bush signed a new level of economic sanctions on Myanmar ("US Hostility Hampers Relief," Workers World, by Sara Flounders). These new sanctions prevent US humanitarian organizations and individuals from donating money directly to causes within Myanmar. They can only provide supplies, not personnel or money to the relief efforts. Also left out from major news media is the complete story of why the Burmese government is refusing some of the aid efforts from the United States.
Burma vs. Myanmar
In 1948, the Southeast Asian state of Burma gained its independence from Britain. The military junta -currently called the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) - has ruled the nation with an iron fist since 1962. In 1989, the military government officially changed its English name from Burma to Myanmar.
In 1990, Burma held its first free democratic elections in nearly three decades. While Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) won the election in a landslide victory, the military junta refused to give up power, putting the NLD leader under house arrest, where she remains today.
The United Nations recognizes Burma's right to self-naming, but many activists and sympathizers of the Burmese struggle continue to use "Burma" as a form of resistance and to highlight the illegitimacy of the military junta's power
The US Government had been insisting that the Pentagon be given the right to deliver the aid with its personnel and equipment. Other countries have delivered their contributions to the relief effort from non-military sources, including China, India and Thailand. The US could certainly do the same and provide aid without a show of military might.
US and European companies are also partially responsible for human rights abuses that are related to the building of gas pipelines in Myanmar. Three prominent companies have invested in Myanmar for the construction of pipelines: Union Oil of California (Unocal) which is owned by Chevron, a French company (Total) and a British company (Premier Oil) (InterPress Service, Danielle Knight, 5-22-08). Unocal and Total are both involved in the Yadana pipeline construction in Myanmar. They are partnered with the brutal Burmese military regime-owned oil company Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise. The pipeline cuts across Myanmar into Thailand horizontally and is heavily militarized. According to a report published by Earth Rights International, "forced labor is a widespread and serious problem." (See The Human Cost of Energy: Chevron's Continuing Role in Financing Oppression and Profiting from Human Rights Abuses in Military-Ruled Burma (Myanmar).) The report also clearly gives evidence that these companies are well aware of the human rights abuses in Myanmar that are directly related to the construction of these pipelines. Despite this, they continue in their investment and support of the pipeline construction.
How to Send Aid to Burma
With concerns regarding the policies of the Burmese government and
the US government, it's difficult to know how to send aid in a way that it won't be co-opted or misused. Below is a message from an SPC supporter currently living in Myanmar. Matt is a former Syracuse University student who many may remember for his original opera Sundance, based on the trial and incarceration of Native American political prisoner Leonard Peltier. He is currently studying Burmese and volunteering as a teacher of music composition and conducting at a small, independent music school in Yangon called Gitameit.
After the storm, the students at this school mobilized immediately and have been sending teams out to assess needs in the makeshift refugee camps that have arisen in local monasteries. You can read about their experiences on their website, www.gitameit.com. (Sending foreigners out with relief teams just draws more unwanted attention, so we're trying to do organizational work, raise money, and do little things like translating their daily journals.)
I'm not trying to knock the big aid agencies, but in a place and situation like this, their hands are really tied. And survivors in and around Yangon and the Irrawaddy Delta need help now. Gitameit is an organization that has teams on the ground, is effectively, quickly, and sustainably getting aid out to people, and has a way to get money into the country. Gitameit has recently teamed up with another local community based organization called Myanmar Development Foundation, to try to create more teams and expand our reach outward.
On the Gitameit web site there are links for several organizations. I recommend donating to the first one, Foundation for the People of Burma. This is the foundation that has the connections to bring money into the country immediately and is supporting small projects like the one run out of Gitameit. Life in Yangon has for many people returned almost to normal, and it's easy for people to forget how bad it is just a few miles outside of the city. Please consider helping this organization that is doing amazing and necessary emergency relief work.
I've been told by some Burmese people that in order for the military regime to change and for the numerous human rights violations there to stop occurring, people all over the world would have to stand up and protest against the government and pressure their own governments to put pressure on Myanmar. However, if we now consider the roles played by corporations, it is clear that we must also campaign against the oil companies that are enabling Myanmar to continue these human rights violations.
To learn more, visit www.freeburma.org or www.earthrights.org.