Zoya Phan: Denial of aid is as effective a way of killing my people as a bullet

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The Independent Online

Burma's generals probably can't believe their luck.

A year ago they failed to warn their population that a cyclone was on its way. Then they blocked international rescue efforts and arrested people for delivering aid. They eventually relented in the face of outside pressure but the human rights abuses continued. The generals forced orphaned children to join the army; they used cyclone victims as forced labour for construction projects; and they confiscated fertile farmland.

The response from the UN and Western governments has not been outrage. There have been no attempts to hold Burma's generals accountable for their actions.

Instead, there is a kind of pathetic gratitude to the generals for the limited opening of humanitarian access in the Delta. But that humanitarian space is shrinking. The international community fears that if they challenge the generals, they will lose what little access they have. They think gentle persuasion is the way forward.

This is the same approach they have taken to the political problems of Burma, and it is failing on the humanitarian front just as it failed on the political front.

The international community must also accept its share of responsibility for the generals blocking aid after the cyclone.

For decades they have stood by and watched while the dictatorship blocked humanitarian aid, especially to ethnic areas. In Karen state, in the east, where I grew up, the junta blocked all aid as part of its campaign of ethnic cleansing against my people.

The denial of aid is as effective at killing my people as a bullet, and the UN and world governments, including the British, have shamefully failed to challenge these restrictions.

A lesson that should be learnt from Cyclone Nargis is that the generals are not immune to pressure. Faced with growing condemnation, and high-level diplomacy, including from the UN secretary general himself, the generals backed down and let foreign aid workers in.

Instead of learning from this, applying pressure for humanitarian access to all the people of Burma and putting similar high-level pressure on the generals for political reform, the international community has fallen silent again.

It is time to end the policy of appeasement.

The author is an international co-ordinator for Burma Campaign UK. Her autobiography, 'Little Daughter', is out now.