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10 May, 2008

AHRC stresses Indian civil society’s moral and legal duty to help Myanmar

The following is the text of a statement issued by the Asian Human Rights Commission, Hong Kong

Cyclone Nargis that devastated Myanmar is likely to claim more lives than what was lost during the 2004 Asian tsunami. The tsunami, widely known in the scientific community as the Great Sumatra-Andaman earthquake, has reportedly claimed 224,000 lives. The number however, was the total of the reported deaths from 11 nations with landmasses bordering the Indian Ocean. Whereas, the death toll in cyclone Nargis is from just one country -- Myanmar. According to the scanty but latest reports that come in from Myanmar, it is estimated that more than 200,000 persons are already dead in that country. Trustworthy reports predict that the number is likely to double in the coming days.

While these figures can be disputed for good reasons, the fact remains that the initial death toll that was reported to be just over a few hundred has increased some 400 times in a matter of seven days. When living conditions deteriorate by each hour in the country, the condemnable resistance by the Myanmese administration to accept 'Western' offer for help has also not toned down. The history of the military administration and its intolerance towards any suggestions from the 'West' clearly shows that unless any miracle happen, the aid offered by the 'West' will remain in the tarmacs of neighbouring and Western countries while people continue to die in Myanmar. Every day of this impasse is a shame to humanity.

The recent reactions of the administration in Myanmar however show that the Myanmese administration is more amenable towards the suggestions made by its immediate neighbours like India and China. There are good reasons for the Myanmese administration to be more pliable to the suggestions made by its Asian counterparts. This is mostly because of the 'look the other way policy' these nations entertain regarding rule of law and human rights issues in Myanmar. China and India and a few other 'Asian Club' members are competing with each other to remain in the 'good books' of the Myanmese administration.

This is because all these nations have an eye on exploiting the abundant natural resources in Myanmar. It seems that this interest has become a curse to the people of Myanmar, even at times of dire necessities like the devastation caused by Nargis.
While the reports in the international as well as the national media available across the region about the actual state of affairs in Myanmar are scanty, there is a huge criticism, particularly from the Western nations and the UN agencies about the stubbornness of the Myanmese authorities in refusing to accept help. While the 'West-sponsored' aid and relief is being rejected, those offered by the Asian states were readily accepted by Naypyidaw. Naypyidaw is the new capital of Myanmar, after the administrative capital of the country was moved from Yangoon to Naypyidaw in November 2005.

The lesson to be learned from this experience is for the Asian governments to take further initiatives, primarily to address the immediate human demand for assistance and help of the ordinary people in Myanmar. Medical and other relief operations must be the first priority. The Asian governments like India and China in particular, and their Foreign Ministers, has a moral and legal responsibility to see further ways by which their governments could in fact carryout relief operations within Myanmar on a purely humanitarian mission.

According to reports, it is only the Asian states that have a relatively better access to the Myanmese authorities. The sheer magnitude of the devastation must be the only immediate concern for the Asian states to help Myanmar unconditionally. Since it is the privilege of a few select Asian states to constructively liaise with the Myanmese authorities, these states are obliged to encourage Myanmar to accept all possible humanitarian help. In an equally responsible note the governments that are currently shunted by the Myanmese administration must approach the Myanmese administration directly or through other 'acceptable' states for the administration, with a view to help the people in Mynamar without any other political agenda.
An equal responsibility rests upon the human rights organisations and other civil society bodies in India. The civil society in India must urge the Government of India to intensify its engagement in Myanmar. The human rights organisations in India in the past have done so during the 2004 tsunami relief operations.

Private and public sector undertakings in India like those from the large-scale industry sector must not limit their assistance to the people in Myanmar by mere pledges of monetary assistance. These entities must urge the Government of India to spare no resources to provide help to the people in need in Myanmar. The initiatives during the Gujarat earthquake by these organisations must be once again be mobilised with immediate effect to help Myanmar.

Ignorance by the Indian civil society groups about the situation in Myanmar will reflect as a blight to the morality of these organisations and their sensitisation and preparedness to act in dire situations.

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