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    Southeast Asia
     May 13, 2008

The problem with dictators and disasters
By Sreeram Chaulia

NEW YORK - As the full extent of the devastation wrought by Cyclone Nargis dawns, it is clear that Myanmar's military junta has earned one more black mark in its egregious record of rule. United Nations officials reveal that the response of the country's long-reigning tyrants to offers of humanitarian aid has been typically suspicious and opaque, even though the scale of the disaster is massive (approximately 100,000 casualties and more than 1 million displaced persons).

The tardy relief measures mounted by the Myanmar army, coupled with the blockading of United Nations relief efforts through various barriers, reflect the criminality of the regime. By inordinately delaying aid flights and visas for UN relief workers, and confiscating international emergency supplies, the junta has demonstrated not only total insensitivity towards the suffering of its own people but also its paranoid insularity.

Having ruled with an iron fist for more than four decades by sealing off the country from outside influences, the generals in their secluded new capital at Naypyidaw, led by Senior General Than Shwe, clearly do not see any reason for relaxing the imprisonment of their population in the wake of Cyclone Nargis' fury. A number of calculations underlie the junta's obstructionist attitude to foreign assistance for cyclone victims.

First, it is motivated by fear of exposure of the socio-economic and political conditions that prevail in the Irrawaddy Delta, the hardest cyclone-hit region. If the UN is able to access the Delta, there is a danger of civilians lodging a deluge of complaints not only about their immediate travails from the cyclone, but also concerning the long-term oppression they have faced under military dictatorship.

While the scale of repression in Myanmar is known generically, the gory details are locked behind layers of state intelligence and military penetration of society. Opening the country to foreign-led cyclone relief teams threatens, through their inevitable communications with global media, to spill the beans on the military's brutal grassroots security policies.

Second, disaster relief organized by foreigners would be unpalatable to the junta's obsession for command and control through tight supervision and surveillance of the people. Admission of outsiders for cyclone relief would be seen by the hardliners in Naypyidaw as a potential crack in the door that could widen and loosen their grip on power.

By its very nature, the humanitarian enterprise lingers after a disaster and devises "post-emergency" projects that would potentially entail a near permanent presence in the country. That has been witnessed with the 2004 tsunami disaster and the long stay by foreign aid organizations in disaster-hit areas of Indonesia and Thailand. The junta is afraid that the UN, not to mention the United States, might use the cyclone as a Trojan Horse to eventually promote real grassroots democracy in Myanmar.

Interestingly, Naypyidaw did not procrastinate in accepting emergency aid from India, China, Thailand and Indonesia immediately after the cyclone. These Asian countries are perceived as innocuous compared to the UN because of their close strategic relations with the junta. Their aid is being handed directly over to the Myanmar authorities without tracking the endpoint distribution or monitoring the use of the supplies.

The International Herald Tribune reported that part of the UN relief tranche that did manage to enter Myanmar had been confiscated by the junta to organize its perverse referendum on a new constitution, which was held in most areas of the country on Saturday and was apparently a bigger government priority than rescuing cyclone victims.

Diversion of emergency aid to military purposes is a worldwide problem compounded by bilateral government-to-government assistance involving undemocratic recipient regimes like Myanmar.

A third reason why the junta has stymied international aid is apprehension that it might awaken domestic civil society. Local community-based organizations, citizens' self-help groups and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that are independent of state direction are virtually non-existent in Myanmar. Strict regulation of societal activism is necessary for the junta to deflect criticism and popular calls for accountability.

Fear of 'NGO-ization'
The entry of foreign aid organizations on a large scale usually goes hand-in-hand with the spawning of local "implementing partners" and "NGO-ization" of the social sphere. While partner NGOs of international humanitarian organizations rarely address sensitive subjects like protection of civilians from atrocities and abuse, they could have unintended consequences of allowing spaces within which more radical citizen activism could emerge. Hence, the determination of the junta to contain domestic dissent is a likely factor behind obstructing UN and Western-led humanitarian aid.

To be sure, Myanmar's junta is not unique in mishandling disaster relief. North Korea's totalitarian regime has long shown no mercy for its starving population. Since the late 1990s, more than 3 million North Koreans are believed to have died from the man-made disasters of food shortages. The hermit regime has hence become dependent on foreign food assistance. However, the UN is reeling under donor fatigue due to legitimate concerns that the aid is being siphoned off by the Kim Jong-il regime to maintain and even strengthen the hold of his totalitarian government and the army on the hapless population.

In Africa, the despotic governments of Zimbabwe and Sudan have shown similar symptoms of either refusing foreign aid or misusing it for partisan purposes. The humanitarian crisis in Zimbabwe under the authoritarian President Robert Mugabe adversely affects more than half of the country's 11.6 million people who wilt under severe drought, poverty, an HIV/AIDS pandemic, economic decline and government-sponsored excesses. Yet Mugabe angrily denies that his country needs food aid and exacerbates the crisis by clamping down on expression of social concerns.

The military regime of Omar al-Bashir in Sudan has presided over a series of life-threatening humanitarian crises by orchestrating army and militia violence on civilians in the country's southern and western regions. UN initiatives to provide material relief and protection to Sudan's people have been frustrated at every step by the Bashir dictatorship, with the backing of tyrannical regimes in Egypt and Algeria. The Myanmar junta's botching of the Cyclone Nargis relief effort is thus part of a larger trend of authoritarian regimes mismanaging disaster response.

Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen has argued that democracies are better positioned than non-democracies to deal with famines, droughts and other disasters. Elected governments act in a more responsible fashion when their populations are buffeted by natural or man-made disasters since power for politicians depends on popular mandates at the polls, not through the barrel of a gun. Moreover, democracies have a relatively freer media that scrutinizes the post-disaster response of the authorities for the public interest. The relative success of India in handling disasters like tsunamis, floods and earthquakes vis-a-vis Myanmar, North Korea or Pakistan would seem to vindicate Sen's thesis.

The gross inaction and belated response of the US government to Hurricane Katrina, which battered the southern state of Louisiana in 2005, however raises questions about the quality of democracy and its relation to effective and humane disaster response. According to a Gallup poll conducted shortly after the hurricane lashed New Orleans, six out of every 10 black residents said that "if most of Katrina's victims were white, relief would have arrived sooner".

The callous and biased approach of the US government to a huge natural calamity was contextually no less criminal than what the Myanmar junta has done in the wake of Cyclone Nargis. It turns out that both Naypyidaw and Washington have their respective fiddling Neros. The counter-example of Katrina shows the limitations of the intellectual case for democracy as a panacea for improved disaster response.

A state will have to be democratic not so much in form but in substance (i.e. respectful of minorities and weaker sections of society) to effectively mitigate disasters or relieve citizens after they inevitably occur. The junta's lack of response to Cyclone Nargis sends another unmistakable signal that Myanmar sorely needs an end to its dark night of military dictatorship. Yet establishing real democracy - not the sham constitutional referendum process held by the junta over the weekend - is the only way for Myanmar's pummeled people to train and prepare themselves for future calamities.

Sreeram Chaulia is a researcher of international affairs at the Maxwell School of Citizenship at Syracuse University, New York.

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