Burma: After the cyclone, the next threat is Aid

R Latif

The death toll of the Burmese cyclone, called Nargis, to date has been estimated by the Burmese authorities to be about 22,000 people with other sources estimating it to be as high as 100,000. There is also a real risk of further fatalities with disease, lack of health care and lack of food and water expected to take further lives. In terms of the scale of the disaster this is certainly on a par with recent incidents such as the Tsunami in 2004, the Pakistan earthquake in 2005, the floods in Bangladesh in 2007, and now the earthquake in Southern China of the past few days.
Following the realisation of the scale of the destruction, there has been a growing clamour of calls for the Burmese authorities to allow aid agencies and workers into the country in order to take food and other aid to the affected area, primarily the Irrawaddy Delta region in the south of the country.

To date the Burmese authorities have been reluctant to allow aid into the country from the west such as USAID. And coupled with the fact the Burmese government continue to refuse to issue visas to aid workers, this is being interpreted as further evidence of the callousness of the Burmese military Junta towards its people and evidence of it paranoia towards the outside world.

No one doubts the brutality of the Burmese authorities over the past 40 years towards its people. Like so many regimes in the world, the dictatorial regime has resulted in misery and destruction to its people, Muslim and non-Muslim alike.

Western media coverage, the only means to access information on the cyclone, has been slow to report on the crisis in Burma. This is in contrast to the coverage given to Hurricane Katrina in the US in 2006 and more pertinently the coverage given to the pro-democracy movement (saffron revolution) in Rangoon in September 2007.

Coverage and further detailed reporting on damage and death caused by cyclone Nargis has started to pick up and it now covers more front pages than a week ago, but still does not dominate the media's attention. This raises many questions not only about the media but also about the foreign policy motives of western nations.

Some disasters are more important than others!

What is apparent is the contrast in media reporting of incidents taking place that involve westerners or incidents in the West, whether it be a bush fire in California threatening the homes of Hollywood actors or the death of a handful of holiday makers in a foreign country, it is clear that this news will take a greater share of reporting as and when it happens. Similarly with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, there was major coverage on the incident that resulted in 1800 deaths, a relatively low number.

It has been an all too common phenomenon in the western media to report the deaths, kidnapping or harm of westerners than the death of non-westerners. However there is one important lesson that can be learnt from the coverage of Hurricane Katrina. Katrina proved that a colonial attitude still dominates policy and thinking amongst the most powerful nations in the world primarily the UK and the US.

The majority of the people affected and killed by Hurricane Katrina were the poor, black, underclass of southern America, in real terms an insignificant part of the population with respect to economic or political leverage on policy making in Washington.

This position of the US has been clearly reflected in the manner in which the death of Iraqi civilians has been ignored to the extent that no one knows exactly how many have been killed by the US-led invasion and occupation. A report by the AFP on 25th March 2008 confirmed that there is no accurate count of the Iraqi civilian death toll, however accurate records are kept of the US troop deaths and wounded.

Katrina raised serious questions about the attitude of the US government towards parts of its own society and people. But in reality the understanding was that the lack of action by the Federal government was the reflection of its colonial past (the slave trade) and the callousness of Capitalist societies.

Therefore the response of the US and other western nations to other disasters around the world must be seen in terms of the Capitalist view held by these nations, if they cannot be moved to help their own people, why do they help others.

Aid and its hidden threats

There have been a number of major natural disasters in recent times and in response there have been numerous promises of aid, however there are major questions that need to be asked about over whether this aid has been provided and whether it was sufficient.

First of all it is important to look behind all the slogans and propaganda to examine whether or not the West and other 'rich' nations should be lauded for their past offers of financial aid and other forms of aid. Notwithstanding the generosity of the general public we find that the western governments have failed to live up to expectation on delivering the aid they have pledged.

Aid donation have been pledged in many scenarios, from aiding disaster recovery to pursing foreign policy targets generally we can see that the aid promised has either not been honoured or is inadequate, examples are plenty such as aid to Afghanistan, Indonesia and sub-Saharan Africa amongst others. In addition to this the evidence shows that the provision of aid has never been cost free. The Burmese government's reluctance to allow foreign workers into the country may be evidence of the tyranny of the regime; however the general's paranoia may not be misplaced.

September 2007 saw leaders from the US and the UK place immense pressure on the Burmese government. There was open support in western capitals for the 'Saffron Revolution' as monks and the general public came out to march against the military government in Burma. The public were cruelly dealt with and the support for the movement subsided. However the current crisis allows the pressure to be applied again upon the army in Burma. But the question abounds, if they accede to the demands of the US and UK, what will be the cost.

In an award-wining book 'the shock doctrine' Naomi Klein highlighted numerous examples over the last 30 years where the US utilised the disorientation created from a crisis such as the Tsunami in Sri Lanka or man-made disasters such as a financial crisis or recession to further its aims. Klein highlights how the US has taken advantage of numerous incidents to pass through polices which would normally never be considered acceptable. She states, "Immediately following September 11, the Bush Administration quietly out-sources the running of the "War on Terror" to Halliburton and Blackwater…. After a tsunami wipes out the coasts of Southeast Asia, the pristine beaches are auctioned off to tourist resorts…. New Orleans's residents, scattered from Hurricane Katrina, discover that their public housing, hospitals and schools will never be reopened…. These events are examples of "the shock doctrine": using the public's disorientation following massive collective shocks – wars, terrorist attacks, or natural disasters – to achieve control."

In addition to this the UK used aid as a means of seeking economic and political reform in various countries on the pretext of trade. Mark Curtis in his book 'Web of Deceit' highlights that the UK government through the use of the Department for International Development (DFID) used to pursue the interests of business by persuading countries to implement liberalisation policies to various nationalised industries and services in aid recipient countries.

He goes on further to state "what being 'persuaded' actually means was discovered by Christian aid. It found that in Ghana, the British government was in effect tying the release of British Aid to Ghana's government privatising its water service. DFID was withholding £10 million in aid for the expansion of water supply in the city of Kumasi until company bids for the leases of Ghana's urban water supplies as a whole had been received. DFID had commissioned the Adam Smith institute – a wholesale supporter of privatisation – to 'advise' the British government on restructuring the water sector in Ghana."

Therefore far from being genuine and sincere gifts to people in need. the action of the western governments was nothing more than a means to force greater controls over the resources of the state.

In contrast we see from the early days of Islam that the Khilafah has been foremost in caring for the needs of its citizens and others. And it is through the return of the Khilafah that the world not just the Muslim Ummah that sincere assistance to mankind will be offered.

What is required to aid the people of Burma, or indeed any other nation that is struck by the tests of natural disasters, is the sincere leadership of true Islamic politicians that exist to serve Allah (swt) and fulfil their political role as described in the Qur'an and the Sunnah of the Prophet (saw).

The ability to look after the affairs of the Ummah in times of natural disasters is not a matter dependant on material resources or the latest technology in itself. Rather, it is a matter of clear political objectives and the will to carry out the duties of leadership. This was demonstrated by the Khilafah of Umar Ibn Al Khittab (ra) when, in 18 A.H, there was a general famine in Arabia. Umar organised the collection and distribution of food from other areas of the Khilafah. However, the food had to be transported by land which would have resulted in supplies reaching the needy far too late. Understanding that such a situation was intolerable, Umar (ra) ordered Amr Ibn Al As, the governor of Egypt, to bring a delegation to Medina. When they met the Khalifah, they were informed of an ambitious plan to connect the Nile to the Red Sea in order to facilitate the efficient transport of goods throughout the needy regions. Far from being defeated or negative about such a plan, Amr (ra) set about implementing his duty immediately and built a canal from Fustat, ten or twelve miles from Cairo, to the Red Sea. In effect, the river Nile was joined directly to the sea allowing easy transport of goods in and out of the rest of Arabia.

One cannot overstate the remarkable achievement of the leaders of that time as the canal was sixty miles long and was completed in only six months. The Ummah reaped much benefit from this canal; in the first year alone twenty huge ships laden with sixty thousand arubs of grain came into the port of Madinah.

Foresight and preparedness for natural disasters were features of Umar's government as he kept a store of food in the central treasury to enable rapid relief for those who faced starvation. Hardship and expected tests is always part of the true believer's outlook on life but it is the obligation of Muslims to deal with these hardships that fall upon them and other in need in the best manner Islam ordains.