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Monday, June 02, 2008

The UN is failing Myanmar

By Dennis Byrne
Chicago Tribune

As the clock ticks, uncounted Myanmar survivors of Cyclone Nargis are dying of starvation or disease while the world stands by, its helping hands supposedly tied by the country's Stone Age tyrants.

A month ago, the cyclone killed 78,000, left 56,000 missing and another 2.5 million facing hunger, homelessness and disease, and it will only get worse because the rulers of this impoverished nation have been systematically barring foreign aid workers and supplies. Some guess that the number of dead could double while help is stalled at the borders, but who really knows how many are imperiled by the hidden and grotesque eradication under way there? Yet, the world stands idly by.

This is, if anything ever was, a job for the United Nations. And what is the UN doing to move perhaps the only government in modern times to ban massive aid being offered by the international community? Talking. Conducting diplomacy. Seeking permission. Consultation. Exchanging views. The kind of blah-blahing that Barack Obama says will be the touchstone of his Democratic administration if he becomes president.

Here's a measure of the UN's futility: While hundreds of thousands are suffering and dying, a UN agency is asking permission to import six emergency vehicles. Six. The response as of this writing, from Hakan Tongul, a UN deputy director of some sort: "We haven't heard anything from the [Myanmar] government."

Sure, the UN is trying to do much more. It reports that about 160 aid flights—some 10 to 15 daily—have arrived. Last week's headlines said: "Myanmar approves all pending visas for UN aid workers." OK, that sounds like the devastated country soon will be crawling with hundreds, even thousands, of competent, compassionate and fully equipped aid workers. Well, no. Actually, it's more like 45—the number of pending visas. And there's more good news: Save the Children, Doctors Without Borders and the UN Children's Fund have sent in more than 14 aid workers. Wow.

I dare say that Rotary International and its ShelterBox program may have accomplished more on its own. ShelterBoxes are staged, ready-to-deploy containers that provide a tent, stove, water-purification kit, blankets, tools and other necessities that enable families to survive for six months. Rotary said it had landed more than 1,000 containers in Myanmar, but many more are needed.

Still, in the face of the piddling amount of aid that the Myanmar government is allowing in, these heartless tyrants incredibly insist that the "Myanmar people are self-reliant and can stand on their own without foreign assistance." The government would have the international community believe that the relief phase of the disaster has ended and the economic recovery phase has begun.

The UN apparently accepts such nonsense at face value. John Holmes, UN undersecretary general for this and that, told the media after a visit to Myanmar that no cyclone-caused diseases have been reported. Yeah, sure—this after international aid agencies were unanimous in their warnings that disease and infections from the stacks of unburied bodies and widespread malnutrition were now the most serious problems.

Nor will it get any better. The cyclone devastated the fertile Irrawaddy River delta region, the country's rice basket. Farmers are missing the rice-planting season.

The UN says Myanmar has expressed "great sensitivity" about allowing in outside aid, especially from western nations, and most especially from the American relief vessels, waiting patiently just over the horizon. The UN, as always, is sensitive about everyone's "great sensitivity," so it does little more than dither. Clearly, dealing with the Myanmar bullies requires aggressive policies.

The UN was created for such circumstances, and it is failing its charter miserably. Does the UN even dare think about violating Myanmar's sovereignty by barging in uninvited? Does it have the moral and political mettle to gather a coalition of willing nations to save the lives of hundreds of thousands? Or will the UN continue its high regard for brutish sensitivities while tens of thousands are without food, water, shelter or even the means to bury its dead, and while, incredibly, the government reportedly is forcing survivors to return "home" when there is no home to return to? While the Myanmar government attempts to shoot down rescue helicopters, would the rest of the world idly stand by? It would.

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