One Year After "Nargis" -- How to Really Help the Burmese People

06/02/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

I don't know anything about Burma, aka Myanmar but my friend, Dr. Werner Peters, a prominent German author and political scientist who once was once an aide to two influential Democrats, the late Sen. Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota and former Rep. Lee Hamilton of Indiana, doe as he is a frequent visitor to that country. He sent me the following commentary, which is timely and insightful.

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Dear Al:

One year ago, on the night of May 2-3, the cyclone Nargis roared through Yangon, a.k.a. Rangoon. the former capital of Myanmar, better known under its colonial name Burma.

I was in Yangon at the time, and when I came down from my hotel room the next morning, the street was littered with broken trees, telephone poles and billboard-carrying steel beams. There was an eerie silence, since there was no traffic, but also an almost peaceful atmosphere. At that time we did not know anything about the devastation in the Ayerawaddy delta, since all communication channels, including TV, telephone, Internet, were dead.

Many houses in downtown Yangon had suffered some damages, especially on their roofs, and we heard from local people who live in the outskirts in flimsily-built dwellings that the damage there was quite severe. But in Yangon itself, there were not a great number of casualties. The real catastrophe, as we soon learned, happened in the delta region, caused by water that the storm had driven inland.

The first TV channel to come back on air was the official government station. We saw hour after hour army top brass handing out blankets and bags of rice to grateful looking village people, and we heard some 3,000 deaths as we saw soldiers removing trees and debris from the streets.

But it was a deceiving picture. Soon, BBC and CNN gave us the real story -- estimates of 100.000 deaths and more, survivors left without help and starving, the government refusing to let foreign relief workers and emergency aid into the country. We did not see a single soldier helping clear the streets in our inner-city area for at least six days.

But we saw something else that was amazing. People working with saws, axes, knives, hatchets as they cut down huge trees into small pieces that they then piled up on the sidewalks. After a couple of days the streets were passable again - by private initiative. Sad to say, this is the positive side effect of an incompetent government. Since people don´t expect anything from above, they start immediately to help themselves.

The same was true with electricity. Since the system is so unreliable, almost anyone who can afford it has a generator. So the fact that all power lines were down did not cause a general blackout. My hotel operated smoothly, albeit with reduced energy consumption (no air-conditioning for a couple of days), a few shops and restaurants opened even on the same day, many more on the next one, and on the third day, life was almost back to normal in Yangon.

There was a completely different picture, of course, in the inundated areas. Here, on the contrary, the situation worsened day by day, because government help was only trickling in, emergency aid from outside was hampered and outright blocked by the regime, and the people were unable - without any tools - to help themselves. There was a huge outcry, especially in the West, about the callous attitude of the military government, although not capable of bringing fast relief into the disaster zone, refused to accept the generously offered and urgently needed help from other nations.

This policy, if one can call it a policy at all, almost certainly caused further devastation and death. Unforgiveable as this behaviour was, it did not help the Burmese people to complain and rant about this awful government, which will only isolate them further and punish them with even harsher sanctions.

However, it is not the full picture, as the rulers of Myanmar did not refuse to accept outside help. Teams from Thailand, Singapore, South Korea, Malaysia, even Japan and China, were let into the country and allowed to move into the delta area. Thailand was close to a deal with the regime to let an American C-130 plane loaded with emergency aid enter the country. But although the deal fell through, it shows that you need an avenue of approach, a channel of communications, even with a bad government, if you are serious in helping their people.

Indeed, how can you expect the military rulers of Burma to react to the offer of help from a country that has pontifically embraced the policy of "regime-change" in Myanmar, especially if this offer comes from the deck of a warship cruising off the coast? The American admiral complained on CNN that the government did not allow helicopters from his ships to deliver aid, referred constantly to the government of "Burma."

It was not arrogance, but probably sheer ignorance. He did not know that this country had proudly shed its colonial name and calls itself Myanmar. How would an American president react to the insult if he would be addressed as the President of the American territories?

By now, dozens of relief organization with thousands of staffers from all over the world, including many Americans, are working in the delta and helping people rebuild their homes, their equipment, their public buildings, bridges, roads, infrastructure. They have made great progress, although some losses are irreplaceable. There are some settlements without any women and children, as they were swept away by the tidal wave.

No foreigners allowed into the area except those who have work to do there, which is O.K.,as the least they need in this devastated area is catastrophe-tourism. Other than that, the government does not much interfere with the work of the NGO´s, which are often more hampered by their own inflexibility, bureaucracy, paternalism, sometimes even corruption. But that is another story.

Nargis and its aftermath have demonstrated that the policy of isolation and sanctions against the government of Myanmar is counterproductive. It is simply not working. Economic sanctions are a very blunt weapon. They almost never bring about the desired effect, by forcing the government to its knees -- look at Cuba, Iran, even North Korea..

In the case of Myanmar, sanctions are ridiculous. Not only is this country basically self-sufficient and has plenty of riches to offer to anyone willing to circumvent the sanctions, but there are indeed plenty of suitors who are standing in line to participate in the exploitation of Myanmar´s natural resources, foremost the Republic of China.

It is said that about half of Mandalay, Myanmar´s second largest city, is already owned by Chinese. If the Chinese influence increases at the same pace as now, Myanmar will become a satellite of China. Fortunately there are other Southeast Asian countries, including Japan, that are actively their economic interests in Myanmar, which has the effect of a counterbalancing the Chinese inroads. And recently, India has discovered not only the allures of Myanmar but the danger of an ever-expanding influence zone of China, and is heavily investing in Myanmar.

There is no economic or political justification for isolating the military rulers of Myanmar. On the contrary, it hurts the people. Not long ago. the undisputed leader of the opposition, Nobel Peace Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, demanded that the sanctions should also include tourism, because that, too, would support the dictatorship. But even Nobel laureates can err.

There is a lot of private business in hotels, restaurants, transportation, travel agencies and the ubiquitous hawkers at the tourist sites who live and thrive from the tourists who come to see stunning natural and cultural beauties of this land. But even more important than the economic advantage is the cultural and political aspect. People in Myanmar are hungry for contact with foreigners. Tourists are their window to the outside world and they are happy to chat with them and proud to practice their English.

Meanwhile the "Lady", as Aung San Suu Kyi is reverently called, has softened her stand on the question of tourism, but she seems to be getting out of touch with the mood of the population - which is understandable, since she herself has been isolated for many years and is only in contact with some of her close followers.

From what I found out by talking to people and also some members of the young business elite, people in Myanmar shun a confrontation course, but cling to their hope to somehow sit out this regime. They are confident that the forces of economic development which the regime cannot stop, will give them not only more freedom, but in the long run more leverage to resist and ultimately change an authoritarian regime.

The economic crisis hasn't hit Myanmar as hard as other Southeast Asian nations, due in some respect to its semi-isolation, but it has touched it and it is hurting. Nobody knows how the global economic crisis is going affect Myanmar. There are definitely severe problems lurking at the horizon, because Myanmar is highly dependent on its exports to its neighboring countries hit by recession. This could be a temptation for the Western nations to increase the pressure, to tighten the sanctions, to try to squeeze the regime into submission.

But it wouldn´t work and it would only hurt the people. The better alternative would be to use this crisis to open up a channel of communications and establish normal relations which, of course, would stabilize the military government, but would also create opportunities to develop projects that could help the people of Myanmar.

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