On Friday, 2 May 2008, Cyclone Nargis made landfall in The Irrawaddy Delta, sending a storm surge 40 kilometers into the densely populated agricultural area. On the sixth anniversary of Burma’s worst-ever natural disaster, which killed at least 138,000 people, The Irrawaddy is republishing a comment from May 9, 2008, that argued for US humanitarian aid intervention as the then ruling junta did little to help the affected population.
A US air drop of humanitarian aid to the desperate survivors in the Irrawaddy delta—with or without Burma’s permission—is the only way to save lives that hang in the balance with each passing hour.
Unilateral humanitarian intervention is justified, because the Burmese junta has been given a chance to cooperate with dozens of international offers of aid, and it has failed miserably. But so far—as expected—the junta is demanding humanitarian aid be shipped to Burma, but it doesn’t want any foreign aid workers to enter the country.
On Friday, the junta seized all food and equipment that the World Food Program had flown into the country for relief aid. Later, the UN announced that it was suspending all aid shipments to Burma.
Four US navy ships, now located in the Gulf of Thailand, are positioned with relief supplies that could be air dropped into Burma or shipped on the ground, if the foot-dragging junta gives the go-ahead.
The US chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said on Friday the US is seeking the junta’s permission for an air drop, and it respects a sovereign’s state air space. There would be no air drop without permission, he said.
The fact is that it may be days or weeks before sufficient humanitarian aid gets to the survivors in the delta. Or, knowing the regime, the aid may never get there. Much of it could end up in junta warehouses.
If you think this is a harsh, distorted, cynical view, consider this:
The majority of 1.5 million homeless people are living without safe drinking water and sufficient food six days after the cyclone; thousands of people are injured or ill from bad water, helplessly waiting for treatment. Tens of thousands of corpses, including many children, are floating in ponds, creeks and rivers. The photographs are heartbreaking and too grim to publish.
Aircraft loaded with relief supplies have been sitting on tarmacs for days, waiting for a green light. International aid workers have been waiting for days to get visas. We wouldn’t be surprised to see Burmese officials take Saturdayand Sunday off, ignoring the desperate calls to speed things up.
Small shipments of aid have started trickling into Rangoon’s airport, but only after the generals have captured their propaganda pictures designed to make them look responsible and caring.
So far, aid has been allowed in mainly from close friends Thailand, India and China. Few planes from the Western world have been allowed into Rangoon. It’s xenophobia and hubris politics, totally ignoring the welfare of people.
“The Burmese regime is behaving appallingly,” Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said in an interview on Thursday.
US Ambassador Eric John told reporters in Bangkok on Thursday, “We are in a long line of nations who are ready, willing and able to help, but also, of course, in a long line of nations that the Burmese don’t trust.”
Relief workers, he said, “are ready to go in to help. They are not going in to overthrow the government. They are not going in to spy. They have specific skills for immediately responding to disaster.”
The junta is still telling the country through its state-run media that 22,997 people died and 42,119 are missing, when reliable local sources and US embassy estimates say more than 100,000 people are dead; the UN estimates at least 1 million people are homeless.
The junta boasted that it has seven helicopters dispatching food aid.
In fact, hundreds of airplanes and helicopters and thousands of skilled relief workers will be needed to organize the distribution of food, shelter, medicine and create temporary camps to house the homeless.
Mobile hospitals will be needed to treat the injured and the sick and to prevent the outbreak of serious, communicable diseases. One of the first tasks will be to gather up the tens of thousands of corpses from water and land so that the water system can return to its normal, non-contaminated state.
On Tuesday, US President George W Bush said: “We’re prepared to help move US Navy assets to help find those who have lost their lives, to help find the missing and to help stabilize the situation.”
Sadly, there is no chance the junta will allow US assets on Burmese soil.
The man making that decision is Snr-Gen Than Shwe, who should be held responsible for humanitarian crimes by blocking the world’s relief efforts.
The US—and other willing nations—must act unilaterally. Act now, knowing right is on your side.
The people in villages and towns of the Irrawaddy delta are looking up at the sky waiting for relief supplies, local sources told The Irrawaddy. It started after shortwave radio broadcasts said the US navy was ready to help supply aid.
It’s time for immediate US-led air drops to help save the lives of thousands of helpless people in the Irrawaddy delta.