Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Burma in the Aftermath of Cyclone Nargis

Testimony by
Dr Sein Win
MP-Elect (Paukkaung Constituency)

Burma in the Aftermath of Cyclone Nargis:
Death, Displacement, and Humanitarian Aid

Honorable Members of Congress,

Please allow me to express my sincere gratitude to the Subcommittee on Asia-Pacific for organizing this hearing at this crucial juncture when my country, Burma, is facing a national calamity of an unprecedented nature in its modern history. The whole country and the people of Burma overseas are mourning for the millions of people affected by Cyclone Nargis when the storm hit the densely populated areas in Lower Burma on 2-3 May. The cyclone killed tens of thousands and ravaged homes, farms, and infrastructures leaving a lasting imprint of destruction which will take months, if not years, for the millions of survivors to recover from. Even though the death toll cannot be confirmed with certainty yet, the estimation so far is that over 100,000 people are dead or missing and nearly 1.5-2.5 million people will suffer from the effects of the cyclone.

Even under such circumstances, the Burmese military junta has done very little to help the people. Its main focus since the cyclone had been to hold a national referendum so that a constitution it had written to legitimize military rule would pass. At the same time it is also preventing the international community from entering the country with the fear that the rigid control that the military has imposed on the country will be undone by the presence of international relief experts. What is even worse is that reports are trickling out about the international aid being embezzled by the authorities.

The Burmese generals' short-sighted policy has worsened the situation for the cyclone victims. An international NGO working inside Burma estimated that 30,000 children are starving and the under-fives living in the Irrawaddy Delta, who were already "acutely malnourished" when the cyclone hit Burma, might be dying from lack of food now.

The five regions struck by cyclone are predominantly agriculture zones where agriculture families producing 65 percent of the country's rice are living. International agencies have time and again been warning that time is running out fast and Burma will be subjected to the risk of famine if the agriculture system is not restored soon.

We understand that ASEAN countries have now formed a regional task force to distribute foreign aid and that medical teams from ASEAN will be working in Burma. What I want to emphasize here is that formation of that task force and the admittance of ASEAN medical teams into Burma should not be become an excuse for the Burmese generals to delay assistance or prevent international experts from joining the relief efforts.

Lest people have forgotten, let me remind them that when the last Tsunami struck Southeast Asia, it was international experts that ASEAN nations had to invite for the relief and rehabilitation operations. In other words, ASEAN alone cannot help our cyclone victims and Burma needs international relief officials with the right expertise to cope with the challenges.

From our point of view, the delivery of humanitarian assistance to Burma is already too late. The relief and rehabilitation programs should start now without any delay and we support any move which will make that happen regardless of what the Burmese generals think. This is because we are talking about lives that are at stake now and in the foreseeable future. It will not be a natural disaster but the xenophobic Burmese generals who will be responsible for killing them this time. The situation is totally unacceptable and it must not be allowed to continue.

We are, therefore, calling on the United States and all donor nations to do everything they can to start massive relief operations immediately. The leading political party -- the National League for Democracy -- and elected representatives in Burma who are witnessing the calamitous situation have also called for immediate relief for the cyclone victims.

As a citizen of Burma, and an elected representative, I want to stress that pursing diplomatic options to convince an intransigent regime like the Burmese generals is like waiting for people to die and time is something that the people of Burma do not have. Please help Burma now.

Currently, the military junta is more occupied with its referendum and constitution than the plight of the people. It has announced that its constitution has been approved and the process to legitimize military is already in the works. We foresee even greater political instability in the coming months as people are bound to be frustrated with the worsening socioeconomic crisis caused by the effect of cyclone Nargis and the regime's lack of regard for human suffering. Given the fact that the referendum did not reflect the will of the people since it was methodically manipulated by the military, I strongly urge the United States to reject the outcome of referendum and the military junta's constitution.

Based on a research on famines and epidemic outbreaks that had happened in the world before, Dr. Amartya Sen, well known economist and Nobel Laureate, constructed a thesis that populations under authoritarian regimes are more prone to famine and epidemic outbreaks after natural disasters than those under democratic governments. Burma, after cyclone Nargis, is now on the verge of that scenario. We are urging the international community to prevent that scenario by using all possible means to ensure that emergency humanitarian aid directly reaches the people in need.

For long-term recovery of our impoverished country, we need a transparent and responsible form of governance responsive to the needs of the people. Democratic transition is the only solution for our country to overcome the challenges lying ahead. In that respect, I expect the United States to:

 Effectively coordinate with United Nations, the European Union, China, India and ASEAN to push for speedy democratic reforms in Burma and a UN Security Council resolution whenever possible.

 Impose effective banking and financial sanctions targeting family members of the regime and their business cronies

 Increase humanitarian assistance to the people of Burma. While humanitarian assistance is delivered cross border to refugees and IDPs, needy people inside the country can be assisted through credible international NGOs and informal civil society groups.

 Increase support to the democratic forces in strengthening their efforts for the restoration of democratic governance, national reconciliation and civil society in Burma.

Thank you.

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