Peter Popham: Junta is acting out of self-preservation, not compassion

Related Topics

A grave natural disaster like the cyclone that ripped through southern Burma is a moment of reckoning for an authoritarian regime. It cannot fight the disaster as it fights the Karen rebels on the border, destroying their villages and crops, killing their animals and driving them into exile. It cannot descend as it did on the thousands of monks who demonstrated in the nation's towns and cities last September, shooting and beating and arresting them.

The State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), as Burma's military junta styles itself, argues that military government is essential for Burma because of the threat to the nation's unity from secessionist groups on the borders. Democracy cannot be permitted because Burma is in a permanent state of emergency.

But a real, full-scale natural emergency like this one is a challenge of a different kind. At the start of the emergency the junta behaved according to form: it did nothing. It gave no warnings: the columns of the torpid official newspapers were still full of exhortations to people to vote yes in a referendum on a new pseudo-democratic constitution, which is scheduled for 10 May.

It is no surprise if the SPDC does little or nothing to bring relief, because since losing the general election of 1990 to Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy it has behaved as if the people – or the 82 per cent who voted NLD – were the Enemy Within. They exist to be exploited, bullied, silenced, forced to work for nothing, and shifted from land the army wants. The bizarre decision to move the capital to the remote new town of Naypyidaw, hundreds of miles from Rangoon, the former capital, was the latest sign that the regime wants as little to do with the people it rules as possible. They dominate the people through elaborate networks of informers and vigilantes. Soldiers or police appear only when there is serious trouble.

But yesterday came the turning point: as the number of casualties officially admitted jumped tenfold from 400 to 4,000, and then immediately to 10,000, the regime seems to have realised that denial was no longer an option. Yesterday the Foreign minister, Nyan Win, said Burma would welcome international aid.

The junta does not want foreign aid workers swarming through the land. The regime has vowed to press on with the referendum, and the last thing it wants is foreigners poking their noses into the process.

But if they continue to do nothing, some kind of popular revolt is probable. "This country is a volcano," a dissident intellectual told me in Mandalay in March. "It could erupt at any time." And it is always at moments of dramatic crisis that the Burmese people's patience snaps. Better, perhaps, the generals may have decided, to bring in foreign aid quickly to avoid an outbreak of violent disorder.

The change of mind could have dramatic consequences. After 2004's tsunami, the Indonesian government welcomed foreign aid – and the Indonesian army looked on aghast as the military of Australia and the United States flew incessant missions in and out of the stricken city. The unexpected upshot: the end of the guerrilla war between the Free Aceh Movement and the government, and a peace agreement which still holds.

But Burma is unlikely to be so lucky. Too much has been too wrong, for too long. But foreign aid would be like a long cold drink of water to a man dying of thirst. Quite aside from the immediate relief it would bring.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Website Editor

£15 - £17 Per Hour: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is currently r...

Year 2 Teacher - Maternity cover

£120 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Luton: Year 2 maternity cover, startin...

KS1 Teacher

£95 - £150 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Key Stage 1 teacher require...

Upper KS2 Teacher

£120 - £150 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Upper Key Stage 2 teacher ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Young Syrian refugees gather around a small fire at the Minieh camp in Lebanon  

Cameron and Obama may want to ‘destroy’ Isis, but what will they do about the growing number of refugees fleeing Iraq and Syria?

Kate Allen
“You're running away!” Nick said to me the other night as I tried to leave the hospital  

In Sickness and in Health: ‘There’s nothing I want more than to have you at home, but you’re not well’

Rebecca Armstrong
A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments