When the deadly tsunami hit western Thailand and its neighboring countries in December 2004, there was little attention given to what possible destruction had been wrought upon the southwestern coastal population of Myanmar, formerly known as Burma.
Prior to 2007’s “Saffron Revolution,” many people in the west would have had a difficult time locating Myanmar on a map. But the monk-led protests against Myanmar’s military government brought the plight of the Burmese people into the headlines.
Now, as they struggle to survive the aftermath of a major cyclone, the world’s attention has returned to this unfortunate nation once more — attention that the ruling junta would rather do without. After the extent of the destruction the cyclone had caused became apparent, various countries, aid agencies, and the United Nations offered assistance on a massive scale.
These efforts immediately ran into a bureaucratic brick wall which prevented the help that the suffering citizens of Myanmar needed so desperately from coming into the country. Aid was eventually sent, but whether it ever reached any of those who needed it is doubtful. Aid workers were refused visas for weeks while the death toll began to rise to staggering numbers. Only after a great deal of diplomatic pressure was applied did the junta finally relent and begin to let aid and disaster relief workers into the country.
Few, however, were allowed to get anywhere near the hardest hit areas. Now — only a few weeks after relief efforts began — the junta has begun closing cyclone relief centers and announced that all foreign aid workers must leave. They have rejected any additional food aid because the people can eat “large frogs” that are plentiful during rainy season.
The regime’s official newspaper renewed its attacks on foreign aid and insisted their people could now survive without outside help. The Orwellian named publication The New Light of Myanmar, which is the junta’s official newspaper, announced: “The government and the people are like parents and children. We, all the people, were pleased with the efforts of the government.”
Over the past months, various world leaders and UN officials have expressed frustration at the junta’s reluctance to allow foreign aid workers in to monitor the distribution of aid and assist in relief efforts. There has been genuine surprise at the junta’s inflexibility.
There is no reason for surprise: anyone familiar with the junta’s paranoid nature would not be. Refusing to allow aid workers in because they might provide the local populace with rumors of the outside world or prevent the junta’s minions from dividing up the windfall of supplies amongst themselves is business as usual from a group who had no problem with ordering soldiers to open fire on unarmed civilians or drag monks out into the jungle and beat them to death with rifle butts.
As a British colony, Burma was one of the richest nations in Asia, possessing abundant natural resources in fuel, timber, mineral and food stuffs. When the generals took power in 1962, a socialist utopia was promised but never delivered. Instead, the country now known as Myanmar have been subjected to decades of corruption, political oppression and cruelty. With an annual military budget last year of $2.84 billion, the junta has purchased arms from China. It has also aggressively bought up newer, high quality weapons from Russia and North Korea. By offering up its vast natural gas supplies, Myanmar has also found willing arms suppliers in neighboring countries such as India. The purpose of this massive spending isn’t only to secure the nation’s borders against a “feared” U.S. led invasion – but to keep an iron grip on the populace and continue a policy of ethnic cleansing against the Karen and Hmong peoples.
The junta is also deeply involved in illicit activities such as human trafficking and the opium trade. As contemporaries of the North Vietnamese, the junta has dropped its collectivist trappings and become little more than gangsters within their own country.
As unfathomable as the junta’s antics have been with regard to the cyclone relief efforts, what is equally puzzling is why anyone would expect anything different.