TOPICS: UN gambles with junta — forgets history

Marwaan Macan-Markar

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is optimistic that his four-day mission to military-ruled Burma has produced a breakthrough. But the troubled history of relations between the world body and the South-east Asian nation offers a warning against high expectations. Ban’s views were shaped by signs that Burma’s strongman, the reclusive Senior Gen. Than Shwe, had conceded some ground to a UN appeal to let in more foreign assistance and experts to help the country’s cyclone victims. Significant for Ban was the 75-year-old ruler of Burma (or Myanmar) agreeing to meet him. Than Shwe had refused to take calls from the UN chief in the days after May 3, when Cyclone Nargis struck the Irrawaddy Delta.

“I have been much encouraged by my discussions with Myanmar’s authorities in recent days,” Ban said on Sunday. “Senior Gen. Than Shwe agreed to allow all international aid workers to operate freely and without hindrance.” “We agreed to establish several forward logistics hubs and to open new air, sea and road links to the most affected areas,” added Ban, who had earlier participated in a day-long international conference in Rangoon, Burma’s former capital, where officials from over 50 countries had gathered to pledge aid. “The Myanmar government appears to be moving toward the right direction to implement these accords.”

Ban’s breakthrough with the notoriously secretive junta is being welcomed by international humanitarian agencies like Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF-Doctors Without Borders), which has a presence in Burma but, like other relief agencies, has been denied access to most of the cyclone-hit delta. “We welcome the news. Since the cyclone struck three weeks ago, MSF has been trying to get more international aid workers into the delta, particularly those with expertise in emergency situations,” says Jean Sebastian Matte, MSF’s emergency coordinator.

“Hopefully, MSF will be able to bring more international emergency experts into Myanmar — most urgently to the delta region, the worst-affected area.”

The restrictions placed by the junta on aid workers travelling to the devastated terrain south-west of the country is only the latest demonstration of the oppressive grip the powerful clique of military leaders has on the country. Consequently, not only has urgently needed relief like clean water, food, medicine and shelter been denied to the survivors, but the actual human cost has also been kept out of the public eye.

Estimates of the human toll range from 130,000 to as high as 300,000. The people affected by the cyclone in the delta range from 2.5 million to four million. Concerning the junta’s response, Aung Naing Oo, a Burmese political analyst, said: “They have made concessions bit by bit in the past when in trouble.

It is a way of reducing international criticism. That is what we are witnessing again. But we have to see if the promises by Than Shwe translate into reality in the next few days.”