It seems that Asia is a repeated target for the wrath of nature. Tsunamis, earthquakes, tornadoes and other natural disasters have continuously affected this region. The recent effects of Cyclone Nargis in the Irrawaddy Delta region have left the population of Myanmar at a disastrous standstill. Day to day living has necessitated the most rudimentary basics of survival. The populace of Burma (what the Burmese call their home) are facing unprecedented levels of displacement, malnourishment and starvation.
Poor sanitation levels are increasing the risks of water and air-borne diseases and infections. All the while, Myanmar’s military regime is facing another disaster of its own making – civil unrest. Battered, bruised and broken, the people are hoping and waiting for aid to trickle in while the junta has isolated and hoarded crucially necessary supplies. Aid drops are sending in less than adequate supplies and the United Nations is negotiating on whether or not to send in troops so that aid can go directly to the people. Meanwhile, Burmese monks are helping to rebuild important shelters and infrastructures so that the people of Burma do not suffer any more than they have to.
Conversely, police are barricading aid workers from travel and getting necessary supplies and aid to the people. The Associated Press on May 13th, 2008, reported that the police were taking passport numbers and checking identification documents of aid workers as if to send the message that come hell or high water, this junta will impose its will. In the meantime, stockpiles of aid are piling up at the Yangon airport. Thousands have been displaced and are sharing make-shift shelters with strangers. Close to 35,000 people are officially reported dead and almost as many are still missing, many of them children. However, UN totals put the numbers at over 100,000 dead and over 200,000 are missing.
These numbers are reported by the Irrawaddy News, by reporters who are risking their own lives to get the real truth out. On the other hand, the “New Light of Myanmar,” a state-sponsored newspaper, had one general stating that Myanmar didn’t “need foreign aid workers right now.” This is elementary political psychology, diminishing the crisis affecting the nation as though it is nothing more than an unsightly stumbling block and assuring the nation that the government is in complete control.
What will be most devastating to the Burmese people are the aftershocks of stabilisation – coming to the terms with the scale of the death toll and how many homes have been devastated. How does one cope with the loss of family and home all at once, in addition to being starved and sharing one’s incredulous trauma with strangers? This is where the power of denial is strongest – when the people are in a collective state of post-traumatic stress and the governing junta continues to prolong the trauma.
All juntas are understandably fixated with keeping power once they seize it. This is achieved by taking over the communications, travel and governing functions of a particular country. What better way to exercise complete oppressive control than to hold a referendum during a humanitarian crisis? Describing the military junta in Burma, American President George Bush termed the regime “isolated or callous.” One could easily conclude that the regime is both. That is how juntas maintain power – to isolate, divide, conquer, develop apathy and leave the populace to fend for itself. It is, simultaneously, callous and isolated.
One might also conclude that the junta has backed itself much too far into a corner to ever regain their former strength. Arresting and detaining monks during the Saffron Revolution and withholding of food and medical aid does not a respectable government make. Furthermore, it may lead to discontent on a scale hitherto unknown. The people of Burma, should they receive essential food and medical aid, could rise up in numbers as yet unseen to depose the military regime and provoke change.
We will not be seeing this extraordinary response any time soon. The military junta will ensure that people are absolutely dependent upon their extreme generosity during a time of absolute need. The hoarded supplies will suddenly and magically be given in small doses to the people, in the hope that the perceived generosity of the junta might entreats the respect of the people.
What remains to be seen is how the junta can maintain their repressive, authoritarian, self-absorbed ideologies in the face of humanitarian crises. If the UN troops decide to “storm in” and assure that aid gets directly to the people, will the junta strike back? And, if they do, who will pay the ultimate price?
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This post was written by Safreena Rajan