Than Shwe’s Days Are Numbered
Than Shwe’s Days Are Numbered
Monday, June 2, 2008
Burma’s military leader, Snr-Gen Than Shwe, has been accused of committing a “crime against humanity,” as evidence mounts that his refusal to allow a meaningful relief effort in the cyclone-stricken Irrawaddy delta has put hundreds of thousands of lives at risk.
A month after Cyclone Nargis slammed into Burma, relief supplies are still not reaching large numbers of survivors. Meanwhile, there are reports that many of those who have received some assistance are already being told to leave their temporary shelters and return to their flattened villages. On Friday, United Nations officials confirmed that refugees were being evicted from government-run camps.
The decision to essentially abort the relief mission before it has barely had a chance to begin comes straight from Than Shwe, who rules from his distant capital, Naypyidaw.
Recently, the senior leader held a cabinet meeting and reportedly told ministers and army leaders that the Tatmadaw, or armed forces, could handle the crisis in the delta on its own. Some senior leaders who wanted to accept more international aid were said to have been disappointed by Than Shwe’s stubborn resistance to the idea.
After the cabinet meeting, a rumor spread among Burmese suggesting that some of Than Shwe’s loyal ministers and family members held a ceremony to pay their respects to his leadership, praising him for his decision to move the capital to Naypyidaw, far beyond the range of the cyclone.
The unexplained decision to shift the capital to central Burma in 2005 may have spared Than Shwe and his family from the deadly storm, but it won’t save him from the consequences of his failure to do anything about the devastation in the delta.
Because Cyclone Nargis struck an area known as Burma’s “rice bowl,” the economic impact of the disaster will eventually reach every corner of the country. As poverty deepens and infectious diseases spread beyond the delta, the consequences for the country will be dire.
A month after the cyclone, it is not Than Shwe who is saving lives. Burma’s monks, activists, civil society groups, local NGOs and even celebrities are reaching out to refugees with food, relief supplies and money. They are the heroes of Burma.
People from as far away as Shan and Kachin States are traveling to the delta to help. Exiled Burmese groups are raising funds to support independent relief groups. Churches and temples are working together to help refugees. Thai and Burmese medical workers coordinate their efforts to deliver relief supplies and paddy seeds to farmers.
Meanwhile, the regime’s mouthpiece newspapers are telling farmers to be self-reliant by foraging on water cloves and frogs. People in the rest of the world can only shake their heads and wonder what the generals are thinking.
Listen to US Defense Secretary Robert Gates: “It’s not been us that have been deaf and dumb in response to the pleas of the international community, but the government of Myanmar [Burma]. We have reached out; they have kept their hands in their pockets.”
Gates, who was speaking at the Asia Security Summit, which was held in Singapore from May 30 to June 1, expressed his frustration over the regime’s refusal to allow relief missions into Burma. US, French and British naval vessels were waiting near Burmese waters to deliver aid to the delta but were not allowed in.
Now France has withdrawn its ships, and the US has indicated that it will do the same soon if it cannot obtain permission to enter Burma.
Recently the international media reported that the regime had approved all pending visas for UN aid workers. But this doesn’t mean that the devastated country will soon be crawling with hundreds or thousands of competent, compassionate and fully equipped aid workers. The actual number of pending visas was 45.
And here’s more “good” news: Save the Children, Medecins sans Frontieres and the United Nations Children’s Fund have just sent in another 14 aid workers.
Than Shwe is now clearly committing humanitarian crimes. It is time for Burma’s democratic forces inside and outside the country to think of a better strategy to remove the Than Shwe regime. They have to show that there is an alternative to Than Shwe.
The international community and neighboring countries must also continue to pressure the regime and help refugees in the delta. They must speak with one united voice. The Than Shwe regime is not sustainable.
Without Than Shwe, we will be able to save many lives and rebuild a new Burma.