Burma is ruled by one of the world’s most brutal regimes, guilty not only of suppressing democracy but of causing one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises. In response, the International Crisis Group (ICG)has lost the plot.
Earlier this year, Cyclone Nargis hit Burma. Unlike almost any other government in response to a natural disaster, the junta in Burma initially refused, and then restricted and diverted international aid efforts. Aid was stolen by the regime (pdf). Burmese people who tried to help deliver aid were arrested. The little aid that was officially distributed was given for propaganda purposes and often taken back when the photocalls were over. At least 140,000 people died and 2.5 million left homeless in the wake of the regime’s deliberate neglect.
Following the cyclone another humanitarian crisis has unfolded, this time in western Burma (pdf). Chin State (pdf) has been hit by a famine caused by a plague of rats who multiply due to flowering of bamboo, a natural phenomenon that occurs every 50 years. True to form, the regime did nothing to prepare the people for the anticipated famine and has actively obstructed aid efforts. Officials took the World Food Programme to the wrong area, causing them to declare there was no famine. Since then, the WFP has revised its view – but the regime continues to block attempts to help the starving Chin people.
Burma’s military is continuing an offensive against ethnic peoples in eastern Burma, causing further humanitarian misery. Since 1996, more than 3,200 villages have been destroyed, and a million people displaced. Civilians are shot at point-blank range, or raped, taken for forced labour or used as human minesweepers. Children are taken off the streets andforced to join the Burmese army, which has the highest number of child soldiers in the world. Over 2,100 political prisoners languish in jail, double the number of last year, subjected to horrific torture, and Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma’s pro-democracy leader and Nobel laureate, marked 13 years in house arrest last week.
The International Crisis Group says this is all our fault. In one of the most extraordinary reports ever produced by a responsible and until-now respected organisation, ICG provides a subtle defence of the junta and blames the international community for focusing too much on “the political struggle”. It was understandable, ICG suggests, that the regime “hesitated to provide full, unfettered access for anyone claiming to be doing relief work”, because the west has been putting the junta under so much pressure to stop killing its people. Western media is at fault too, according to ICG, for showing images of dead bodies being dumped by regime officials in the river – something that was “very embarrassing” for the poor generals.
While grudgingly conceding that the root causes of the crisis are political, ICG appears to reject the notion that the solutions are therefore political too. The report rightly calls for more aid to Burma, and support for civil society projects, and warns that the country is on the verge of a major humanitarian crisis. I agree. The stories and statistics speak for themselves. But ICG goes on to perpetuate the lie that pro-democracy activists oppose aid. In reality, it is campaign groups that have called for more aid.
It was the Burma Campaign UK and Christian Solidarity Worldwide that led the effort last year to get the UK government to increase aid to Burma – with success. We have been calling for more funding for civil society and democracy groups, for cross-border humanitarian relief and for UN engagement for years (PDF). Much of our time has been spent on getting the generals to talk with the UN, the democracy movement and the ethnic groups (PDF). What we have opposed is ICG’s call for money to go into the pockets of the regime – for the simple reason that the junta will use such finance to expand their army, buy more guns and kill more people. I thought ICG was about conflict prevention. Now it seems they are about regime protection.