Today a portion of Burma's population will vote in a nationwide referendum on the country's new charter, imposed on them by the military junta. Of course, they don't have much of a choice. To vote against the junta is dangerous and anything can happen. Not all voters will vote today, as those in areas devastated by Cyclone Nargis will vote at a later date.
Despite the UN's appeal for it to concentrate on helping the victims of the cyclone last weekend, the junta is adamant that the referendum continue despite growing problems resulting from the disaster. Apparently, the junta's leaders put their people's well-being second to their political schemes. The generals are concerned about their political survival and everything must go according to plan.
In the Buddhist world, whatever you do, whether actions that bring you merit or evil deeds, will come back to you. Nobody can escape the results of one's own actions or, as we call it, destiny. In this sense, one may regard the cyclone tragedy as an act of "karma", because for the Buddhist Burmese junta it was an act of punishment for all the bad deeds they have inflicted on the Burmese people over nearly two decades, not to mention their killing of innocent monks last September, which is the greatest evil of all. Indeed, we might witness the unravelling of the regime led by these heartless junta leaders who have ruled Burma without mercy. Mother Nature can unleash its power in unimaginable ways.
UN agencies and select international organisations have dispatched emergency aid and humanitarian assistance over the past few days, but more would be coming from around the world if junta leaders allowed it. At the moment, despite pledges from Burmese authorities that they would facilitate the entry of foreign aid workers into the country, hundreds of them remain stranded in Thailand and other neighbouring countries. Further delays could worsen the situation and further increase the death toll, which is already believed to have exceeded 100,000.
At this juncture, all donor countries have put their political positions aside, especially the US and EU countries. They have come together with the goal of helping the Burmese people as their top priority. China has been no exception; it has moved quickly to aid Burma. Beijing knows full well that foreign aid if unchecked would further complicate the political situation in the future. But then, to cope with a disaster like this no single country can effectively deal with the myriad problems involved. Only a well-coordinated and sustainable plan can alleviate the hardships the cyclone has caused.
Along with the international community, Asean as a group can do more than its members can individually. The grouping is stuck with its non-interference principle, even in a situation like this, and Asean is unable to do anything collectively. Asean Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan has already appealed to Burma's leaders to cooperate with Asean and international donors. During the East Timor crisis in 1999, Indonesia showed the Asean spirit by inviting Asean peacekeeping efforts to help with the situation there. That helped ease the peacekeeping operations and the overall peace process in the months that followed.
It is about time for Burma to display the same solidarity with Asean. The grouping can only move when Burma invites it in. If that does not happen, only individual member countries can provide minimal relief assistance. Other regional organisations - such as the EU and the African Union - have mechanisms in place to provide emergency relief for member countries.
People's lives matter more than the junta. By being on the ground in Burma, Asean could use its reputation to draw in additional aid. It is absurd indeed to think that Asean as a group cannot do anything. The Asean Charter, which is waiting for ratification by all, will mean nothing if the Burmese people continue to suffer and die due to the intransigence of the junta. Asean's leaders should act in solidarity to bring the burden of responsibility to bear on the junta. A failure to do so will hurt Asean and its future.