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Tsunami offers lessons for Myanmar aid effort

File image of Indonesia's Banda Aceh area shortly after the 2004 Tsunami.
by Staff Writers
Jakarta (AFP) May 8, 2008
A region closed to the press, a regime reticent to open its borders to aid workers, an overwhelming catastrophe -- there are worrying similarities between Myanmar's cyclone and the 2004 tsunami.

The most striking parallel is physical: villages wiped out, bodies floating in paddy fields, aerial images of a swamped tropical coastline and descriptions of a six-metre (20-foot) tidal surge.

Analysts said there were also similarities on the political level which may shed light on the international community's humanitarian response and its efforts to work with the secretive Myanmar junta.

"There are numerous parallels between the disaster in Burma (Myanmar) and that of the tsunami in Aceh, and some differences," Damien Kingsbury, a Southeast Asia specialist and associate professor at Australia's Deakin University, told AFP.

The 2004 tsunami struck Aceh on the far north of Sumatra, a sensitive zone of conflict between the military and Acehnese separatists which Indonesia was reluctant to open to foreign reporters and aid workers.

Jakarta struggled with questions such as how to welcome relief workers but not foreign journalists, how to manage international aid without being accused of interference, and how to control a hostile domestic opposition in the midst of a disaster.

Confronted with a death toll of almost unimaginable proportions -- close to 170,000 dead -- the government eventually ignored the advice of the military and opened the region to reporters and aid workers alike.

Initially it sought to limit the foreign presence to three months, but soon after the doors were opened it became apparent even in far away Jakarta that the disaster offered a chance for peace.

A peace deal was struck in 2005 between the Free Aceh Movement and the Indonesian government which still holds today.

Kingsbury said that with no sign Myanmar's regime is prepared to make concessions to its democratic opposition, even at a time of crisis, this might be where the lessons from Indonesia's tsunami end.

"In Aceh the Indonesian military was reluctant to let in aid workers but was overruled by the government," he said.

"In Burma, the military is the government.

"Most likely then, while this could be a catalyst for real political change, it will lead to more, if selective, repression."

With some estimates putting the death toll at 80,000-100,000 from Cyclone Nargis, many aid agencies are still awaiting visas to enter Myanmar.

Despite the obstacles, Myanmar's military rulers have defied calls to postpone a constitutional referendum on Saturday which many observers see as a bid to legitimise their grip on power.

Democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi's opposition National League for Democracy has said it is "extremely unacceptable" for the vote to proceed in the aftermath of the storm.

Ian Holliday, of the University of Hong Kong, said the Myanmar regime's main priority was to pass its new constitution.

"It's desperate to get its referendum done and dusted and really wants to shut the country down for that," he said.

"But it knows it cannot cope with the sheer scale of the challenge it now faces and it knows that if it's seen by the population to be standing in the way of aid it could pay a big price."

Following anti-government riots last September which were violently put down by security forces, Holliday said the junta might have no choice but to let the foreigners in.

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Rice says Myanmar crisis 'not a matter of politics'
Washington (AFP) May 7, 2008
US Secretary of State Condolezza Rice on Wednesday urged cyclone-hit Myanmar to admit international disaster relief, saying it was a humanitarian crisis rather than a political issue.

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