Myanmar obstructionism costs lives

In the wake of Cyclone Nargis, which has already killed tens of thousands of people and displaced around a million more, the government of Myanmar (formerly Burma) is deliberately impeding life-saving assistance. Its failure to open the borders to the massive relief efforts required, including expertise, will lead to further deaths and suffering for those affected by the cyclone.

Amnesty International has repeated its urgent call on the government to allow aid, expertise, and materials to reach all cyclone-affected areas, while ensuring that aid is provided on the basis of need without discrimination.

A spokesperson for Amnesty International said that the organization believes that, by deliberately blocking life-sustaining aid, the government of Myanmar may be violating the right of its citizens to life, food and health.

“Every block hindering access for the urgently needed assistance risks increasing the already extremely high death toll,” said Benjamin Zawacki, Amnesty International’s Myanmar researcher.

Myanmar’s government has stated that nearly 23,000 people died as a result of the cyclone, though independent observers estimate that as many as 100,000 people may have died. Cyclone Nargis left more than a million people homeless and without essential food, shelter or health care.

Myanmar’s government has grown increasingly isolated from the rest of the world due to its record of systematic human rights abuses and war crimes. It has not provided desperately needed assistance to hundreds of thousands of its own hard-hit citizens, and it has so far blocked international aid workers and supplies from reaching the most affected areas.

Amnesty International has said that it fears thousands more may die as a result of malnutrition, communicable diseases and exposure to the elements. Each passing day that the cyclone’s survivors do not receive necessary aid greatly increases the risk of death or permanent injury.

In a statement quoted in the media, the Myanmar Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Friday said that the country would not receive “rescue and information teams from foreign countries.” Instead, he is reported to have said that it would receive and distribute aid “with its own resources.”

As a consequence, the Thai Prime Minister, Samak Sundaravej, who had planned to travel to Myanmar to meet with the government, cancelled his trip. A team of rescue workers flying in to Yangon from Qatar was reported to have been turned back.

In addition to turning much-needed relief expertise away, the Myanmar Embassy in Bangkok is reported to have closed on Friday for a local holiday, rather than issuing visas to relief expertise waiting in the Thai capital.

Following what they described as “unacceptable restrictions”, the World Food Programme briefly halted relief flights and human rights groups reported that local authorities in Yangon had been selling rooftop materials rather than distributing them.

Amnesty International has called on Myanmar’s neighbours, in particular those that have friendly relations with the Myanmar government – China, India, Thailand and Viet Nam – to continue to press the country’s government to facilitate aid efforts and to establish transparent coordination efforts with the international community.

Myanmar’s government has announced that it will proceed with plans for holding a national referendum regarding a new constitution on 10 May. Amnesty International has said that the document is an effort to undermine respect for human rights and to entrench military rule and impunity.

Even as hundreds of thousands of its citizens struggle for basic shelter, food and health care, Myanmar’s government has prioritized acceptance of the new constitution.

“Myanmar’s leaders are again demonstrating their disregard for the well-being of their own people,” Zawacki said. “Instead of helping hundreds of thousands of people in desperate condition, the government is more concerned about shoring up its own power.”