Burma’s ruling military junta is prohibiting almost all foreign aid workers from entering the country
, despite the massive devastation wreaked by Cyclone Nargis last week. The military has also impounded an aid shipment from the UN World Food Program
(WFP) and has refused aid from the United States
, among other countries. “We are very concerned that this food is not reaching—on day six after a cyclone—the very victims of that cyclone,” said WFP spokesman Paul Risley
. The United Nations has suspended aid to Burma
pending resolution of the situation.
In a statement released earlier this week, the junta said it would be willing to accept foreign aid, as long as it could distribute the shipments itself. But so far, the statement has not matched up with reality.
The official death toll from the cyclone is approximately 23,000, but experts say this figure could rise significantly, as approximately 40,000 people remain missing. Hundreds of thousands are currently without shelter, food, safe water, or medical care, and international experts agree that the Burmese military does not have the capacity to meet the need. Further compounding the problem, Burma’s military rulers have pressed on with plans to conduct a national constitutional referendum in the less-affected areas tomorrow. Soldiers who could be delivering much-needed aid to survivors have instead been assigned to guard and run polling places. The ruling generals claim that approval of the referendum will set Burma on a gradual path to democracy; nearly all other observers say the vote is a sham. “If you believe in gnomes, trolls and elves, you can believe in this democratic process in Myanmar,” said chief UN human rights investigator Paulo Sergio Pinheiro last year.
Many of Burma’s citizens are probably too preoccupied with immediate survival right now to be thinking about protesting the junta’s delay of humanitarian relief. But in a few weeks or months, when the situation has (hopefully) stabilized somewhat and word has spread of the holdup of humanitarian aid, one wonders whether the junta will find itself the target of popular outrage. By dragging their feet on international humanitarian relief, Burma’s military rulers seem to be begging for an uprising.