The recent natural disaster has done much damage to Burma with the powerful cyclone last Friday killing more than 15,000 and still counting. It also affected well over two million families who were left homeless and without drinking water. Although very little information has come out because of the government-controlled flow of information in and out of the country, a disaster of this scale nearly always has dire consequences. It is important that the international community put aside its partisan policies temporarily and swiftly provide all humanitarian assistance that is needed to relieve the problems of food shortages, sanitation and other urgent needs. It is a tall order.
Asean, the EU and even US First Lady Laura Bush have announced aid packages to provide emergency supplies. Asean Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan has already urged Asean to join the international community in providing assistance to Burma.
Asean has agreed, but not yet ratified, the 2005 Agreement on Disaster Management and Emergency Response. Singapore and the Philippines have already dispatched experts to join the UN Disaster Assessment and Coordination Team in Bangkok. They would be on the ground soon after the Rangoon International Airport resumes operations.
Surin was right in reiterating that given the frequency of such major natural disasters, Asean must on its own as well as in collaboration with its friends and partners, intensify efforts in disaster management and emergency response.
Now the onus rests on the Burmese junta leaders, who have been isolated from the rest of the world since 1988, to announce their course of action. The question is being asked as always: Will they allow foreign aid packages to enter the country fast enough?
Foreign Minister Nyan Win said over the weekend that his country would welcome international aid. If so, what would be the proper procedures to send in aid? Truth be told, foreign-aid donors do not have sufficient experience with the junta, except the UN related agencies. Like it or not, there must be also some guarantee that this valuable assistance would not be diverted by the authorities and go directly to the state-run warehouses for the consumption by the junta leaders and their troops.
It is obvious the junta has not been able to help the suffering public recover from such a huge scale of devastation. People have been complaining that government help is far too little and too late. This negative feeling will have a direct impact on the junta when the May 10 reference is held. For the Rangoon regime it is a nightmare come true, as the disaster struck just a week before the referendum was to be held on the new constitution The Burmese people are angry and want to express themselves. They have one chance for the time being. Despite constant intimidation from the authorities, most Burmese voters would vote "No". Certainly, doing so would endanger their lives thereafter because the junta has a network of thugs who would pursue "No" voters.
Lest we forget, when hundreds of Burmese workers were killed in Phang-nga and Phuket during the 2004 tsunami, the Burmese regime refused to acknowledge the victims and provide any assistance. It is interesting to note that the disaster could loosen the regime's tight grip on the country and offer the chance of a graceful exit if it is handled in the right way. Nobody would have believed the effects of the tsunami when it hit Aceh, Indonesia, which resulted in over 220,000 deaths. It was a great tragedy that also produced a positive result - a peace dividend that led to a cease-fire and stability in Aceh.
The tsunami swept away the insurgent's strongholds and cut their networks, which forced them to the negotiating table. Similarly, the storm that tore up houses also helped break the junta's stranglehold on Indonesia. Let us hope for the best.
Finally, as its neighbour, Thailand made the right decision to help the Burmese people without delay. Thai military aircraft loaded with food and medicines landed in Rangoon yesterday which will help relieve the suffering but we should be prepared to do more since the country is still in critical condition.