Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Burma's unspeakable crimes

Unspeakable crimes

The carnage of cyclone Nargis has aided Burma's murderous junta, writes Paul Ham.

The carnage of cyclone Nargis has aided Burma's murderous junta, writes Paul Ham.

  • Paul Ham
  • June 4, 2008

The carnage of cyclone Nargis has aided Burma's murderous junta.

THE young Burmese woman drowned during childbirth. Her body lay floating in the delivery position; her stomach protruded from the stinking floodwaters near a ruined village in southern Burma. Her child had died half-born. Her husband's body lay dead nearby.

"Nobody has come to claim her; nobody has buried her," said a Burmese journalist with whom I was travelling.

Of all the images that appalled the world after cyclone Nargis, this was surely the most disturbing - and not because the unwanted corpses of mother, father and child were any sadder than those of thousands of other victims. The most distressing thing about this image is what it said about the wretched regime that professes to govern Burma.

If the best measure of a state's civil and economic health is the infant mortality rate - the degree to which a government is capable of sustaining the lives of the most vulnerable in society - then by this measure, and in ordinary times, the Burmese junta has abysmally failed its people. If we impose the measure on a nation in the grip of a natural disaster, then the regime's callous disregard for its people's suffering is worse than failure. It was deliberate, and should be called by its proper name: a crime against humanity.

Virtually all the 300 people in the woman's village - now a twisted shambles of palm fronds and bamboo - had also died. When I approached, corpses lay rotting in the shambles, ignored by a passing team of gravediggers who were too revolted or exhausted to care. And this is just one of thousands of communities that were destroyed in the worst natural disaster in Burma's history.

The malign neglect by the regime of General Than Shwe has turned this event into a man-made catastrophe. Foreign aid workers were refused access to the area for three weeks after the cyclone struck - denying millions of tonnes of food, water and medical supplies. Until then, only a trickle got through, notwithstanding the brave efforts of many Burmese volunteers and ordinary soldiers. But they were too few and lacked the experience to meet the logistical and medical challenge set by 130,000 corpses and 2.5 million in need of help.

The most common outsiders' plea is: why? Why would a government deny aid to help its people? The British embassy received this official reply from a senior junta figure: "There are some subjects of which we cannot speak."

His silence goes to the heart of why this regime is now the most loathed on Earth. Had the generals swallowed their pride and considered the consequences of their actions, they might have acknowledged that Burma is a deeply impoverished nation and hasn't the resources to deal with Nargis. Common human decency might have prevailed, to sustain the most basic conditions of life for the cyclone's victims.

That, however, is the language of weakness in the eyes of a regime that has ruled with the machine-gun and the machete since 1990,

the year Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy won a landslide victory in democratic elections. At the time, the generals annulled the result and placed Suu Kyi under house arrest, where she remains to this day.

The junta's warped paranoia and twisted machismo were put on embarrassing display in recent weeks when the generals showed UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon over a Burmese version of Potemkin villages: neat little communities flush with aid and food set up to impress foreign dignitaries. The New Light of Myanmar, the official news organ, reported this as evidence of the regime's prompt response to the crisis.

The comfortless truth is that the cyclone, at least in the short term, has served the regime's political purposes. The junta has, through its failure to act, harnessed cyclone Nargis as a weapon of suppression.

The catastrophe struck at a convenient time and place - nine months after the junta brutally suppressed a peaceful monks' uprising, in the Rangoon area, the hotbed of dissent.

Few survivors have the will and resources to mount a decisive act of resistance. They are too busy rebuilding their crushed communities. My own local fixer, who loathes the junta, lost his home in the cyclone. He, like millions of others, is in no state to man the barricades.

Yet clearly this closed, paranoid society will never be the same again. The nation's rice bowl has been wiped out, for a season at least. Soaring prices have put petrol and even rice - now at a record $US25 per 45-kilogram bag - out of the hands of the poor.

There are flickering signs of potential unrest in Rangoon. On Thursday, May 22, a few thousand students were seen congregating on a university campus in a rare sign of defiance reminiscent of last September's gatherings. The following day, six truckloads of riot police were seen moving through the centre of Rangoon in an apparent effort to deter further protests.

The unrest coincided with the second stage in last month's referendum on whether Burma should adopt a new democratic constitution. In Rangoon and the Irrawaddy Delta, most people treated the poll as a black joke. On May 24, thousands were herded out of their humpies and lean-tos to tick a box that would legitimise the very regime responsible for keeping them in this hell.

Villagers were threatened with the confiscation of their crucial ID cards or bank books if they voted "no". In many villages, the local chief simply requisitioned all ID cards and ticked "yes" on behalf of the community. Many Burmese will not forget this outrage.

The generals claimed a 92% approval rating in the referendum, a shameless lie that rubbed salt into the people's suffering, the most shocking symbol of which was a mother and her half-born baby floating unclaimed in a rice paddy. It is small consolation that the child will never see the awful world that denied it and its mother a decent burial.

Paul Ham is the author of Vietnam: The Australian War and Kokoda.