Burmese state radio states the official death toll of last weekend’s Cylcone Nargis to be 22,980 with over 40,000 missing and thousands injured. If this data is not devastating enough, fears are now growing that the figure might be as high as 100,000 deaths. According to the UN, more than 1 million people are currently without shelter. For millions, the struggle now is for survival. The real risk now is the outbreak of acute diarhhoea, malaria or even cholera.
The damage done by the cyclone of this scale would be enough to throw many developed nations into crisis. One can only imagine the strain this has put on a country as desperately poor as Burma. The damage done to infrastructure, broken bridges, thousands of scuttled river vessels in the affected Irrawady delta will only add to the mounting problems for the humanitarian agencies, whose efforts are now in full swing.
Even before the cyclone, Burma had been stricken by decades of poverty inflicted by the effects of a praetorian Military junta and it’s control and consumption of the economy. It has been reported that the government has refused some of the planeloads of food parcels, medicine and other humanitarian aid that has been offered. Although John Holmes, UN Undersecretary-General for Humanitraian Affairs has said the situation is patchy:
We are getting cooperation. We’ve had good discussions. They did accept very quickly, which some countries never do, that they would welcome international assistance. They have accepted the idea of a flash appeal which some countries do not want to do, for reasons of sovereignty or pride or whatever they may be. And they have accepted to allow goods to come and now, increasingly, to allow people to come in. It’s not quick enough, it’s not as good as we would like but it’s happening and that’s the point.
The give and take of aid is also subject to ethical dilemmas. Aid agencies can also withhold much needed relief if they think the authorities receiving the aid make all the wrong noises. As Conor Foley notes:
When Afghanistan was ruled by the Taliban, some humanitarian agencies, such as Oxfam, suspended their programmes rather than comply with the Taliban’s anti-women edicts. Oxfam eventually concluded this had been a mistake that had caused greater suffering to ordinary Afghans, but there clearly is a tension of conflicting principles in such situations.
Can there be a case for refusing to supply humanitarian aid? There is nothing to stop the Burmese junta refusing to accept aid if they feel that they are being pressured into reforms and compromises which they are simply unwilling to accept. The dilemma is that this is a government which permits it’s armed forces to open fire on it’s own citizens. If they refuse to comply with the “advocacy package” that comes with the aid, it will only increase the suffering of the poorest and most vulnerable people.
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