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FORUM-ASIA urges SPDC to prioritise humanitarian assistance over referendum

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FORUM-ASIA has expressed outrage at the callousness of Burma’s State Peace and Development Council in the wake of Cyclone Nargis and its insistence on holding a constitutional referendum despite widespread devastation and suffering, in which up to 100,000 people are reported to have died and more than one-million are thought to be in dire need of food, clothing, medicine, shelter and water.

(Bangkok) FORUM-ASIA joins the world community in expressing its solidarity with the survivors of Cyclone Nargis in Burma, and outrage at the callousness of the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) in responding to the aftermath of the disaster and its insistence on holding the referendum in the face of such a catastrophe.
The deliberate stalling of humanitarian aid into the country and the insistence of the SPDC in holding the referendum are twin stabs at the already suffering people. Priority should be given by the military junta to addressing the humanitarian crisis in the cyclone-ravaged areas and postpone indefinitely any referendum in these areas.

The government reports about 23,335 deaths and 37,019 missing, although international organisations have reported the casualty to be as high as 100,000 deaths. An estimated 1 – 1.5 million people are thought to be in dire need of basic needs: food, clothing, medicine, shelter and potable water. Conditions are expected to get worse if relief and other assistance do not reach these areas as soon as possible. Appeals for the facilitation of aid and aid personnel have not received the necessary prompt response.
The military junta insists that it will only accept relief material and money but not personnel. Last week on Thursday, it turned back a relief-laden plane from Qatar simply because it carried a disaster response team and media who had not been granted permission to enter the country.

Two plane-loads of relief goods from the UN were taken over by the junta. The junta is taking its time to issue visas to disaster experts, with as many as 40 applications waiting approval in various parts of the world, including 10 staff of the UN World Food Programme not given visa clearance to go in. It has planes in Bangkok, Dhaka and Dubai ready to deliver supplies. Two UN disaster assessment experts were turned back for unknown reasons. Seven Indonesian journalists have been denied entry into Burma despite official recommendation from the Indonesian government.
The  millions or so people homeless as a result of the cyclone should be considered as internally displaced people as stipulated by international law. Under the UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement (Principle 25), a state should not arbitrarily hold back permission for international humanitarian organisations and other actors to provide aid, “particularly when authorities concerned are unable or unwilling to provide the required humanitarian assistance”.

Dr. Surin Pitsuwan, the ASEAN Secretary-General, wrote to the junta authorities for permission to allow the “quick admission” of ASEAN relief and rescue teams in the “spirit and commitment” made under the 2005 ASEAN Agreement on Disaster Management and Emergency Responses, of which the junta signed. No response has been received.
The military junta went on to conduct the referendum on its proposed constitution last Saturday, except for the 47 townships severely affected by the cyclone. We are troubled by the fact that aid was even used as propaganda material to sugar-coat the regime: generals’ names were pasted over donor labels before being distributed.  Latest reports indicate that after the Saturday referendum, there was an increase in the movement of aid into the country.

In the face of the desperate situation in Burma, FORUM-ASIA urges:

•  The international community to dissociate itself from giving credence to the referendum on the draft constitution as the latter has been clearly designed to perpetuate the military junta in power.
•  The SPDC to allow, without delay, the entry of humanitarian aid and professional and experienced aid workers to assist in disaster response operations to avoid further deaths and mitigate the real risk of epidemic outbreaks. 
•  ASEAN not to compromise its commitment to democratic change in Burma, where every basic right of the people is denied, through more forceful engagement with the junta.

For more information, please contact:

Yap Swee Seng, Acting Executive Director, Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA), at [email protected] or +60 12 2015272

Yuyun Wahyuningrum, East Asia Programme Manager at [email protected] or +66 879914451