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Is 'isolationism' costing Myanmar dear?

No matter what the internal politics and the foreign policies may be, but in times of such humanitarian crisis, the international community should use all possible resources to ensure that the aid reaches the cyclone victims, writes Amrita Sharma.
By Amrita Sharma | Hindustan Times
UPDATED ON MAY 14, 2008 12:07 AM IST

It's almost been a fortnight since the massive Cyclone Nargis thrashed Myanmar and wreaked havoc in a country already infested with problems. The devastating storm left around 100,000 dead or missing.

Reports of the destruction have been splashed all over but the locals are almost cut off from the outside world due to the restrictions imposed by the ruling military junta. Poignant stories have been pouring in from the affected areas of the country, compounded with impending threats of disease outbreak and fight for survival. Inundated roads, lack of communication, poor infrastructure and accessibility have placed the severely affected areas totally at the mercy of global aid and relief efforts.

But the worst part is that even though help is available and within reach, the military junta has been delaying it owing to its isolationist policy. The survivors grapple with the tragedy, struggling with makeshift shelters, scrounging around the stinking debris for remnants of food, battling hunger, thirst and hopelessness in the face of disease and starvation. But the authoritarian junta continues to filter aid and relief coming into the country. International relief agencies seeking to extend help in disaster management are meted out a cold shoulder. As a result, the locals find themselves more and more at the mercy of an unsympathetic government, totally oblivious to their perils.

The helplessness is almost palpable among locals in Myanmar and there are strong indications of their frustrations turning to anger.

The need of the hour, undoubtedly, is making aid and relief available to the victims as soon as possible, but there's no urgency seen in the behaviour of the junta. The UN and the US have also criticized the military leaders for their "unacceptably slow response" to the crisis. Despite regular and consistent flow of hundreds of tons of aid from around the world, the victims are yet to benefit from it. This is so because the Burmese military insists on controlling most of the distribution - despite lacking the equipment and expertise to do it well.

On its part, Myanmar has said that basic needs of the storm victims are being fulfilled and that "skillful humanitarian workers are not necessary."

Needless to say, the top priority in Myanmar is the fulfillment of the immediate needs of the survivors. This includes providing food, temporary shelter, sanitation measures, medicine and interconnecting roadways and bridges. But what the military regiment fails to comprehend is the time factor. With totally inundated landscape, time is running out for the victims and chances of survival are at an all time low.

The scene of the disaster says it all; the dead bodies (both human and animals) and the unbearable stench floating around are a grim reminder of the tragedy and its aftermath. Amidst the wreckage, people seem to have lost everything - not just their belongings but also their hopes, as their chances of survival seem to dip with every passing day. Those who survived are almost wondering if they were lucky or unlucky to have survived. They cannot decipher if grappling with the storm was more difficult than dealing with the military junta's apathy towards them. And this is where the global community needs to step in. No matter what the internal politics and the foreign policies may be, but in times of such humanitarian crisis, the international community should use all possible resources to ensure that the aid reaches the cyclone victims. Nobody could have out it better than French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner who has suggested invoking the UN principle of a "responsibility to protect" the victims, if the junta continued to bar foreign relief teams by their rigid isolationism.

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