Asian governments urged to pressure Myanmar

As hold-ups continue in the supply of foreign aid to Myanmar, Asian leaders have been urged to pressure the country’s military rulers into taking swift action to address a growing humanitarian catastrophe. Amnesty International believes that by deliberately blocking life-sustaining aid, the government of Myanmar may be violating the right of the population to life, food and health.

“Time is of the essence if lives are to be saved,” said Mika Kamae, chair of Amnesty International’s Asia Pacific Forum in Hong Kong.

Myanmar’s government claims that it needs no help in efficiently providing and distributing food and aid to victims, but UN agencies, independent observers, and international and local humanitarian workers speak with growing urgency of deteriorating conditions for hundreds of thousands of people displaced by Cyclone Nargis.

Myanmar’s government has not facilitated visas to expert aid workers. This is in stark contrast to the behaviour of fellow-ASEAN member Indonesia, which responded to the 2004 tsunami by cooperating with international efforts (including the US and other militaries).

Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific directors have called on the region’s governments to increase the pressure on the Myanmar authorities to receive and support massive international assistance required to protect the rights to life, food and health of the victims of Cyclone Nargis.

“The ASEAN countries, Japan, India, South Korea and China are best placed to influence the Myanmar authorities to lift the blockages and allow aid, expertise and materials to reach the millions now in need,” Kamae said.

It is now over a week since Cyclone Nargis devastated the Irrawaddy delta, killing tens of thousands and leaving over a million homeless, without essential food, shelter or healthcare and in need of instant relief assistance. The UN estimates that the number of affected people is between 1,200,000 and 1,900,000.

The official death toll has climbed to almost 32,000. However, as international relief agencies on the ground are reaching further into the devastated areas, the enormity of the crisis is becoming clearer. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said on Saturday the number of deaths could range from 63,000 to 100,000, and that 220,000 people are reported missing.

A UN flash appeal has attracted millions in government donations, and many disaster relief agencies are assembled on standby in Thailand. However, the Myanmar government is still impeding such life-saving assistance. It is slowing distribution and not waiving visa requirements, or else urgently issuing visas to foreign aid workers, including those from three international agencies it has approached for assistance; World Vision, JICA and UNICEF. Myanmar even observed a full 3-day holiday in its embassies while experts waited for visas.

Instead, in a briefing on 11 May, the Minister for National Planning and Economic Development U Soe Tha maintained that international relief workers were not required. He claimed: “Aids from any nations are accepted and delivery of relief goods can be handled by local organisations,” according to state-run newspaper New Light of Myanmar.

“The Myanmar authorities must also give complete priority to mobilizing their own resources for disaster response. Instead, considerable government resources were tied up conducting Saturday’s constitutional referendum, even in close proximity to the devastation. There can be no clearer message to the destitute about the priorities of those in power,” said Milabel Cristobal, Director of the Amnesty International Hong Kong section.

Children are particularly vulnerable to the after effects of natural disasters, as they are prey to malnutrition and communicable diseases. Myanmar’s failure to provide adequate aid to thousands of children could result in many preventable deaths. As a state party to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Myanmar authorities also have legal obligations to uphold their rights to life, adequate food and health “to the maximum extent of their available resources, and where needed within the framework of international co-operation”.