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Burma: Desperation Mounts

Military Junta Today Impounded U.N. Food

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Suzanne DiMaggio
Director, Asian Social Issues Program, Asia Society
Friday, May 9, 2008; 1:00 PM

Burma's ruling military junta today impounded United Nations food shipments bound for the storm-ravaged Irrawaddy Delta, and U.N. officials said they would suspend further aid to the country in response.

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Suzanne DiMaggio, director of the Asian Social Issues Program at Asia Society, was online Friday, May 9, at 1:30 p.m. ET to discuss the current situation in the Southeast Asian country.

A transcript follows.

"The tragedy unfolding in Burma is nothing less than murder of the Burmese people at the hands of the military leaders," said DiMaggio, in an interview with washingtonpost.com. "Their refusal to grant full access to humanitarian relief workers and aid into the country demonstrates the regime's unwillingness to protect its own people. The question facing the U.N. now is whether imposing aid in an effort to prevent further deaths is a legal and moral obligation of the international community."

The Asia Society is the leading global and pan-Asian organization working to strengthen relationships and promote understanding among the people, leaders, and institutions of the United States and Asia.

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Suzanne DiMaggio: Hi. I'm here today to answer your questions about the situation in Burma. I look forward to hearing from you.

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New York, N.Y.: The World Food Programme has always operated on the principle of focusing on the needs of populations, however foul the regimes that may have their lives extended by food aid. Given that WFP is already making the concession of aiding the people of Burma and thus indirectly the regime, is it reasonable that they insist on being in charge of their own food-delivering operations? In other words, even if the very real needs of the people now trump long-term benefits of not supporting the regime, is the WFP right to at least hold on to the principle of distributing their own aid and maintaining standard operating procedure in this area?

Suzanne DiMaggio: The standard operating procedures for UN humanitarian assistance is delivery by its own personnel. I believe this standard is even more important when applied to the case of Burma, where the countries ruling generals have a long history of documented human rights violations against their own people. It is essential that UN aid workers be given access on the ground to ensure that humanitarian supplies and assistance are be delivered to those who need it. How can we rely on the junta to do this job?

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Arlington, Va. : This whole disaster just keeps getting worse. Is the junta trying to kill as many people as possible so there will be that many fewer people left in the country to oppose them? One suspects that there are people in the army from the devastated area, is there any chance they could mutiny? Is this situation an opening for a full-scale rebellion or are people so beaten down at this point that that will never happen?

Suzanne DiMaggio: The ruling military leaders have tight control over every aspect of Burmese society -- from the state-run media to severely restricting access to the Internet and telecommunications. Military leaders are fearful that a rapid influx of outsiders will threaten their hold on power. As such, they are tightening control at this moment to prevent an uprising. But the sad reality is that the survivors of the cyclone are more concerned with getting food, shelter and medical supplies.

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New York, N.Y.: Will this disaster have an effect on the growing food shortage issues in Asia?

Suzanne DiMaggio: I don't see any direct or immediate relationship to the food shortage. By all accounts, food shipments from the World Food Programme, various governments and humanitarian relief organizations are ready to distributed. They just need the access to do so.

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New York, N.Y.: There have been increasing calls for the U.N. to invoke the "responsibility to protect" to address the situation in Myanmar. How likely do you think that this will happen -- in other words, is it politically feasible -- and do you think that this will help the Burmese people?

Suzanne DiMaggio: France has put forward the idea of getting the UN Security Council involved in pressing Burma to grant full and unfettered access to foreign aid workers. But China and Russia have contended that this case does not constitute a threat to international peace and security. Both have veto power on the Security Council, so it seems like a dead end. France also has suggested invoking a concept known as the "responsibility to protect," which says that if a government is unable or unwilling to protect the interests of its own people, the international community then may have the legal right and moral obligation to step in. If the Burmese generals continue to deny access to aid workers, I think a compelling case could be made to consider this approach.

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Arlington, Va.: What can those of us on the outside do? I have sent money to a few organizations that have in-country staff like CARE and also to AVAAZ who apparently have access to an underground network of monks so the money goes directly to the people who are trying to help in the country. Although I suppose having money doesn't do them much good when there is nothing to buy. Are the Chinese helping at all?

Suzanne DiMaggio: There are a number of humanitarian organizations doing important work, such as Medecins San Frontieres, CARE, Oxfam, the Red Cross, UNICEF, and the World Food Program, among others. All of them have web sites where you can make a direct contribution to this cause.

The Chinese government is one of the few governments that has a close relationship with the ruling generals in Burma. In my opinion, the Chinese government's response has been inadequate. I understand they are trying to persuade the generals behind-the-scenes to open up. But given the scale of this humanitarian tragedy, they should support an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council to discuss this situation immediately.

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Lawrence, NJ: What the junta is doing is criminal.

Can they be tried by the world court after hundreds of thousands die from starvation and disease?

Suzanne DiMaggio: Some observers are already talking about whether what is unfolding in Burma can be constituted as "crimes against humanity." The circumstances we are witnessing are unprecedented, but I think it's much too early to know. If the scale of the devastation approaches the numbers we are hearing and if is revealed people who could have been saved died because of the regime's failure to protect its own people, I believe many will press for social justice.

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Sarasota, Fla.: It seems to me that not allowing any international aid in Mynamar would make the government less stable rather than more, for the simple reason of gross human rights abuse. Do you see it that way?

Suzanne DiMaggio: Absolutely. The sad reality is that the Burmese government has been perpetrating systematic human rights abuses against its people for decades now -- and the international community has done little to help. This current situation could be a tipping point.

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New York, N.Y.: I've read that Burma has announced that they will be holding a "vote" on a new constitution in the coming weeks. Considering a large percentage of the population is dying, starving and many of the junta's critics are in jail can this be considered a real referendum? Or is it another example of a power grab during a time of misery?

Suzanne DiMaggio: As the death toll from the cyclone continues to soar, the country's military dictatorship is still pressing ahead with efforts to consolidate its power. They have announced their intentions to move forward with a national referendum scheduled for Saturday to approve a new constitution. Authorities in Burma have said that the vote will be delayed in the areas hardest hit by the cyclone until May 24, but the referendum will still go ahead as planned in other parts of the country. With this move, the military leaders are putting this sham vote aimed at tightening their repressive grip ahead of the well being of the Burmese people.

washingtonpost.com:

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Austin, Tex.: Could you try to put yourself in the shoes of the Burmese leaders and guess why they're behaving this way? What do they fear?

Suzanne DiMaggio: The Burmese leaders are in some ways the most totalitarian regime in the world today. They have a single minded obsession with preserving their power. Any foreign interaction is seen as a threat to their rule.

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New York: The junta still insists that the elections are going forward. How can there be credibility throughout this process in the midst of this destruction?

Suzanne DiMaggio: There is no credibility to this process. Even before the cyclone hit, human rights groups were reporting that opponents of the junta's proposed constitution have been beaten and intimidated in advance of the vote. The pro-military constitution itself lacks any credibility since Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate who has spent 12 of the past 18 years under house arrest or in prison, and other democratic and ethnic minority leaders have not been allowed to participate in the drafting process. Additionally, the new constitution would effectively bar Suu Kyi, from running for president because she was married to a foreigner. Simply put, it's a sham -- the only purpose is consolidate the power of the military.

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Fairfax, Va.: Amazing isn't it? China is in the unique position of being able to score a huge PR coup -- just tell Burma to allow aid now. No way would Burma mess with China, and China would come off as the big world heros -- and heck, people probably would take the heat off about that little Tibet thing...

Suzanne DiMaggio: It's safe to assume that the Chinese government is thinking about its own problems such as Tibet. The dilemma being that if they advocate in support of international intervention in Burma, it could constitute a precedent in support of similar action in China.

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Carlsbad, Calif.: At what point would the U.S. take action against Burma's wishes and force their way in, providing aid to save a few hundred thousand lives? How would such action, if it did happen, compare to other humanitarian disasters where the U.S. did or did not act in the face of a country's resistance? Has this ever happened before in recent history, where there was a massive humanitarian disaster unfolding and the host nation refused or restricted outside aid?

Suzanne DiMaggio: I do not foresee the US taking unilateral action in this case. An international response would be much more credible and effective. We have seen situations in North Korea where aid organizations have been denied access. Also, in the case of Sudan, the regime in Khartoum has done the same. But the case of Burma is unique in that it is a natural disaster exacerbated by the inaction of repressive dictatorship.

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Austin, Texas: Even if China and Russia would allow the Security Council to pass a resolution, is there any reason to think it would make any difference at all?

Suzanne DiMaggio: Yes, it would make a tremendous difference. It would raise this tragedy to the top of the international agenda. Depending on the content of the resolution, it also would obligate the Burmese government as members of the UN to adhere to what the resolution calls for. If it fails to do so, then the UN would have the legal right to pursue action. So, it would be an important development in terms of international law. Moreover, it would underscore the moral imperative of this situation.

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Boston: Do the people inside Burma have any awareness of what the junta is doing? How feasible is it that, at a future date, Burma's current government would be overthrown as a result of citizens' outrage? And also, how well do you think the aid items that are making it through to Burma actually are getting disseminated throughout the country? Are they making it to the populace at all?

Suzanne DiMaggio: There have been demonstrations against the regime. Most recently, thousands of monks took to the streets in peaceful, pro-democracy protests in September 2007. The military leaders' response was a swift and violent crack down. More than seven months on from this brutal suppression, political activists continue to be imprisoned and tortured. The repression has been significantly heightened.

It impossible to know at this point if aid is reaching people in need. This is why the UN must be allowed to send an assessment team into the country to monitor the situation.

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Suzanne DiMaggio: Many thanks for your excellent questions/comments. I urge you all to continue to follow this situation. Signing off...

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