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How to Grow Tragedies - Myanmar

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As we have watched the government of Myanmar block aid to victims of cyclone Nargis, anger and frustration have been present in every report. It is only to be expected that a government would try to aid the victims of disaster as quickly as possible. The evidence of the Myanmar government's lack of response is read as just another example of how bad it really is. While I agree that the military government of Myanmar is a "bad" government, they did not get there without help, and they don't stand alone in lack of response to disaster.

You may recall Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Then too, there was a lack of government response (more than 5 days before mobilized efforts), and even when it did start, it was a total debacle - "Good job Brownie" (Land of the Absurd - Politics of Katrina Response). Further, the Bush administration also refused international aid. Even firefighters from Canada were idled well outside the disaster zone. Meanwhile, people died.

Now we watch Myanmar, and they too have significantly blocked desperately needed international support. The claims of government paranoia and callousness run through virtually every news story. However, there is certainly some reasoning behind the junta's reluctance to allow international aid - particularly that supplied by foreign militaries. Would any nation accept a foreign military uncontrolled and unmonitored on their soil? Likely not if they could help it. Likewise, "foreigners" in the form of Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) running hither and thither don't sound that good either. Along with what likely is an issue of priorities (assuring the military's ongoing place in the government), and callousness, the government could not mobilize to even coordinate the disaster response. Further, they apparently don't trust anyone else to coordinate it either.

Fueling distrust is Myanmar's failure to get off the IMF's "Heavily Indebted Poor Country" (HIPC) list. They were listed in 1998, and yearly pleas and efforts have not removed them from the list. This means that Myanmar has been inelligible for international aid and assistance. This was exacerbated in 2003, when economic sanctions were placed on the country. This situation has increased the influence of private corporations in Burma, as well as the influence of India, China and Russia. Much of this "interest" has focused around Myanmar's natural gas reserves. Given the isolationism involved, these outside "interests" have assisted, and filled the coffers, of the military dictatorship at the expense of the people of Myanmar (Burma: The Back Story).

Now we read in the Guardian that Myanmar is loading up rice for export to India and Bangladesh as the cyclone victims starve. Horriffying and unconscionable for sure, but what is going on here?

Surely it has nothing to do with the World Trade Organization pressuring rice exporting nations to continue to export their rice - while their own people can't eat. The argument for this being that nations that decrease their exports in the face of escalating grain cost are engaging in the national equivalent of hoarding. Nations not exporting in an import/export economy means that the system of dependency breaks down - and that potentially more people will starve. One of the primary exports from Myanmar is rice. That also makes it a primary source of national income. Further, the region hit by Nargis (the Irrawaddy Delta) is the prime rice growing area - and that the current rice crop is destroyed.

SO here we have a poor country, trying to get out of HIPC status so it can access loans, being told by the WTO to not stop exporting, while the need within its own country is beyond question. Can anybody send a straight, consistent message here? Are India and China demanding their imports of rice from Myanmar? My guess is they are. Has the WTO told the government of Myanmar that they can distribute their rice internally in this crisis without further retaliation? My guess is they haven't.

Knowing that the junta - awful as it is - is also working within certain constraints, might the global community offer some incentives that would move the government to allow a response to the victims of the cyclone? I think the answer to that is "yes." Perhaps behind the scenes that is what is going on. If so, that is sure not the way the disaster and response are being painted.

I believe that the government of Myanmar is about as corrupt as a government can get. I also think that it benefits a variety of interests for it to remain both corrupt - and brutal. I get tired of the finger pointing at the junta as if they are operating all alone while the world stands "helplessly" by. Acknowledging the whole sordid mess of influences and interests points us in the direction of what might be done to get needed supplies and assistance to a desperately needy population. However, acknowledging all the dirty hands in the pot would undermine those "interests." Let's just be honest for once, and do what is necessary to respond to the crisis at hand.
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Rowan Wolf is an activist and sociologist living in Oregon. She is the founder and principle author of Uncommon Thought Journal, and Editor in Chief of Cyrano's Journal Today.

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