Sitting here in Bangkok, Thailand with hundreds of other experienced international relief people is the pinnacle of frustration. The Generals in charge of Myanmar, isolated from world opinion as they may be, are nonetheless intent on achieving "Failed State" status with or without a cyclone disaster.
Yesterday, I attended a meeting of 40 mostly European, Australian, American and Canadian logistics experts who have been sequestered in Bangkok awaiting the daily visa or two Myanmar reluctantly grants to those whose expertise 2 million of its people desperately need. There were perhaps 1000 years of accumulated expertise in that room and yet the volunteers were kept from rendering more than arms-length assistance by the very fact of their being from countries whose governments have publicly displayed their displeasure with the Burmese Junta -- a la Laura Bush's tirade after the storm, which vastly complicated private American relief workers' ability to gain access to the country.
Linked by speaker telephone were another 40 mostly Asian staff in Yangon (Rangoon) who were providing the rest of us with their observations from inside the curtain of ignorance the Junta has erected around its 53 million people. The few non-Burmese relief workers in Myanmar are very sparingly allowed out of Yangon into the affected Irrawadfdy Delta areas. Failure to cross a "t" or dot an "i" on an air freight manifest results in confiscation of relief cargo or its being sent back out on the same plane trying to deliver it to those in need. Not a few relief agencies have lost track of hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of cargo in this manner over the past 2 weeks.
On Sunday, the ASEAN Treaty members (10 SE Asian countries) and the UN Secretary General meet with the Junta in Myanmar to discuss ways they and the rest of us might help cyclone victims. The betting is that the ASEAN member states -- only a few like Thailand, Singapore and The Philippines can be of real assistance -- will send a modest amount of medical staff and perhaps what food and medical supplies they can spare and then ask the United Nations and the NGOs to provide funds and materials in lieu of a massive influx of non-Asian relief staff. Expect a new industry of relief commodities to hastily develop inside Myanmar as their cousins and nephews remind the generals that there is money to be made in servicing the relief community. La plus ca change!
Those in the relief field serve those in need and not those in power... but it pains nonetheless to hear about the Bush Junta and Hurricane Katrina thrown up in the same conversation as the Myanmar Junta and Cyclone Nargis. That bit of gallows humor comes up in the bar adjoining the meeting room at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand, scene of this century's version of the Pentagon's "Five O'Clock Follies" in the Saigon of the Vietnam era -- this being the latest laugher provided by the Burmese Junta to a roomful of journalists who also are being denied visas to bear witness to this still unfolding tragedy.
Richard Walden is President of Operation USA, a Los Angeles-based international relief agency, www.opusa.org