Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Food Riots in Myanmar? Who Ya Gonna Call? World Vision!

The drumbeat of demands that international aid workers get visas to enter Myanmar continues.

But some of the rationales seem a little shaky :

Mike Pattison, a logistics official from World Vision, said non-specialists could not set up large water purification systems or choose sites for food warehouses that can be defended in riots.

From some personal experience a while back, I recall the leading weapon in disaster relief water purification is still good, old-fashioned chlorine a.k.a. household bleach, applied to tainted water in large amounts. The portable plants that dispense it are designed to be simple, fail-safe, idiot-proof, and intuitive to a garage mechanic (of the kind that is found in the motor pools of every army in the world, including Myanmar’s).

Maybe things have changed, and a foreign expert is needed to puzzle out a complicated English-language manual and push the right buttons on a sophisticated and delicate device. If so, too bad. That’s the wrong way to go.

Of course, the second rationale, “non-specialist could not...choose sites for food warehouses that can be defended in riots” gave me a chuckle.

Is World Vision telling me they are better at planning for food riots than the notorious Burmese army?

I’m looking forward to the scene in that upcoming Hollywood blockbuster, The Tears of Nargis, where Leo DiCaprio and a brave, outnumbered band of Oxfam volunteers (including one comely but feisty female staffer in a tight, sleaveless top) protect a precious hoard of rice from a rampaging mob of hunger-crazed Burmese refugees. “Remember, non-lethal force only! We’re here to help these people!”

Snark aside, I would say that the “foreign aid worker visa” issue is pretty clear.

Foreign NGOs suspect that the Myanmar government isn’t doing everything it can to save the victims of the cyclone.

They’re probably right.

Given the magnitude of the devastation, the limitations of transport and access, and, to be sure, its disregard for suffering and the value of human life, the Myanmar government is probably engaged in a brutal process of triage, having written off the prospects of survivors in the hardest-to-reach part of the delta and positioning troops and supplies to take care of those who can make it out to towns and monasteries that weren’t razed by the storm.

And I also suspect that the main result of letting NGO aid workers into Myanmar would be a flood of finger-pointing stories fed to the international media about the incompetence, corruption, and cruelty of the junta, and precious little in the way of effective coordination and execution between two groups that despise each other.

So I’m not surprised that the Myanmar regime is extending the middle finger to the clamoring NGOs whose primary effect, if admitted, will be to increase international condemnation of the junta’s rule, provide hard evidence of misbehavior and/or callous disregard to undermine the domestic authority and prestige of the government, and, at the very least, serve as a drain on the limited transport, English-language capability, attention, and patience of the regime.

As I've said before, it would be nice if the media disentangled the humanitarian, human rights, democracy, and geopolitical threads of the Myanmar disaster, instead of assuming they are identical or equivalent. But I don't see that happening.

Instead, I see wasted talk, effort, and lives.


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