As the death toll from the cyclone that struck a densely populated area of Myanmar — stretching from the Irrawaddy Delta to the capital city of Yangon — continued to soar, the country’s military dictatorship pressed ahead with efforts to consolidate its power.
The junta leaders have done little to facilitate recovery efforts in the wake of the disaster. Indeed, they moved forward with conducting a national referendum on Saturday to approve a new constitution, which they hope will entrench their power for decades to come.
Myanmar’s rulers said that the vote would be delayed in the areas hardest hit by the cyclone until May 24, but the referendum still went ahead as planned in other parts of the country. With this move, the military leaders are putting their sham vote aimed at tightening their repressive grip on power ahead of the well being of the Burmese.
This should be no surprise. For nearly five decades, Myanmar’s military rulers have systematically undermined the interests of their own citizens. In this latest case, the junta-controlled news media failed to announce warnings about the approaching cyclone. The entry of UN humanitarian personnel has been delayed because of the government’s refusal to allow aid workers into the country without first applying for visas. Moreover, the military leaders are dragging their feet on easing restrictions on the import of humanitarian supplies and allowing a UN assessment team into the country.
Some have urged focusing attention on bringing relief efforts to Myanmar instead of criticizing its government. But the reality is that the two issues are connected and the magnitude of the disaster has been made worse by the junta’s single-minded objective of preserving its power.
The military leaders have shown that they can mobilize their forces in short order when they want, as evidenced by their violent crackdown on thousands of monks and political activists last year. More than seven months on from this brutal suppression, political activists continue to be imprisoned and tortured. Human rights groups report that opponents of the junta’s proposed constitution have been beaten and intimidated in advance of the vote.
The current pro-military constitution lacks credibility because 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.
As the only international actor in direct dialogue with both Myanmar’s generals and Suu Kyi, the UN is in a position to press for a genuine process of national reconciliation. But its current approach is not working.
To date, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has been addressing the crisis through the use of his “good offices,” with Ibrahim Gambari serving as his representative to Myanmar’s rulers.
In his March briefing to the UN Security Council, Gambari reported that his most recent visit to the country was “frustrating” and acknowledged that no tangible progress was made. He was denied meetings with senior government leaders, representatives of ethnic minorities and political opposition groups. The outcome was a major step backward.