Tuesday, 20 May 2008
Tragedy in Burma: Statements
Cyclone Nargis struck Burma-Myanmar on 2 and 3 May 2008 with winds up to 200 km/h, sweeping through the delta region and the country's main city and former capital, Yangon. Damage from the cyclone was most severe in the delta region, where the effects of extreme winds were compounded by a sizable storm surge that destroyed an estimated 95% of housing.
Yangon sustained a direct hit, which downed power and communications lines, and inflicted major damage to buildings. Even now, more than two weeks after the storm, people remain largely without electricity, piped water and communications. Many roads into and out of the city, as well as vital roads into the delta region, are still blocked by flooding or debris. For much of the delta region, the most significant transportation is normally by waterway, and water transport infrastructure has been severely damaged.
The toll of people killed, missing, or affected remains difficult to assess, with the numbers continuing to increase daily. The UN estimates that more than 100,000 have died and almost 2 million are in need of assistance. To make matters worse, further strong rains are forecast. Some 24 million people, approximately 50% of the population, live in the cyclone-affected areas. On account of the season, a major crop loss is not envisaged, but huge swathes of fertile agricultural land were inundated with salty water and will require significant time to return to normal.
Enormous challenges are involved in mounting a logistics operation of the scale required to deliver sufficient levels of assistance to affected communities. However, the major challenge to an effective response has not been created by nature, but by man. It is the reluctance of the Government of Burma to accept international humanitarian assistance. In the days after the cyclone, the Burmese Government refused to issue visas for international humanitarian workers and refused to allow humanitarian supplies to enter the country.
As time passes, there is an increasing risk of serious health problems among vulnerable communities, particularly as a result of Government imposed delays in the provision of necessary aid. It is feared that malaria transmission will significantly increase and epidemics will occur in many areas. In addition, lack of access to safe drinking water and the near total absence of sanitation in affected areas will increase the risk of diarrhoeal diseases, including cholera.
The denial and impeding of access has compounded what was already a severe natural disaster. It was more than one week after the crisis before supplies seemed finally to be getting through, although the quantity is still nowhere near enough to meet the needs of the affected population. Even when supplies have arrived in the country, the government has curtailed their distribution, often insisting on taking control itself. This occurs despite the fact that, access permitted, the international humanitarian community has greater capacity and the necessary experience to distribute supplies effectively.
The Government in Burma has also continued to enforce its restrictive visa policy. Some aid workers who have managed to obtain visas have been turned back at the airport. Visas that have been issued have, in some instances, been for very short periods only, effectively rendering them useless. Delivery of humanitarian aid in a crisis such as this is a complex task. Without experienced international staff, delivery will not be as effective. There have been some reports in recent days that the Government of Burma-Myanmar has agreed to relax some of its restrictions on aid and relief workers from certain Asian countries. While this would be a welcome development, we must wait to see if it allows in more supplies and staff.
Last week, the EU Presidency convened a special emergency meeting of the General Affairs and External Relations Council to underline the severity of this crisis. It is noteworthy that the terrorist attack of 11 September 2001 and the tsunami were the most recent occasions to give rise to the convening of such an extraordinary Council meeting. In its conclusions the Council, inter alia, considered that without the co-operation of the authorities in Burma an even greater tragedy is threatened; fully shared the deep concern recently expressed by the UN Secretary General and UN bodies to help meet the humanitarian needs of the Burmese people; stressed its strong support for the efforts of the UN, the Red Cross and Red Crescent movements and NGOs to bring aid to the people of Burma and underlined the point that the effective delivery of aid must be monitored by expert humanitarian staff; and, while welcoming recent albeit limited improvements on the ground, called on the authorities in Burma to offer free and unfettered access to international humanitarian experts, including the expeditious delivery of visa and travel permits.
The Council also expressed support for the visit to the region by the EU Commissioner for Development and Humanitarian Aid, Louis Michel. During his visit to Yangon last week, Commissioner Michel met with several Ministers and sought progress from the competent Burmese authorities in ensuring access by humanitarian aid workers to the country and to the affected areas. Issues he raised included visa extensions for humanitarian workers and access to the affected area for international relief staff.
Ireland has been to the fore in calling for full and free access to the affected areas for relief supplies and workers and Irish embassies in neighbouring countries have made representations seeking their assistance in getting access for the international relief effort. Ireland will continue to use its diplomatic influence to improve the access for both humanitarian supplies and workers.
The United Nations Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs, Mr. John Holmes, arrived in Burma on Sunday. While there he pressed the Burmese authorities for more access for UN workers in the relief effort. Earlier, he met regional partners and members of the humanitarian community to discuss how they can assist the Burmese Government in scaling up its relief activities. UN Secretary General Mr. Ban Ki-Moon is expected to visit the country tomorrow. We are hopeful that after his visit there will be an improvement in the access situation.
Some of our European partners have raised the possibility of invoking the "responsibility to protect" agreement, secured at the UN World Summit in 2005 as a means of intervening directly even without the consent of the Burmese Government. We would support any initiative which would bring aid more effectively to those in need but it appears very unlikely that the necessary agreement could be found within the Security Council to act in this manner. Frustrating as it is, there may be no practical alternative to continuing to press the Burmese Government to allow in the necessary supplies and international expertise. The obstruction of the international aid effort by the Government of Burma is unacceptable and I call on it to immediately lift all obstacles to the delivery of urgent, life-saving assistance. Every day and hour is critical. Thousands of lives can still be saved.
There has been one positive development this week. The foreign ministers of the Association of South East Asian Nations, ASEAN, in their meeting in Singapore on Monday seem to have prevailed on the Burmese authorities to promise to accept increased international aid for the cyclone victims provided it is channelled through regional personnel and organisations. We await their implementation of this undertaking.
The Irish Government's response has been rapid and effective. The Government immediately made an initial pledge of €1 million for emergency relief. This is being channelled through established partners in emergency response, such as NGOs, UN agencies and the Red Cross. We are ready to respond further. In addition to this direct support to the emergency response, Ireland is also providing support through its substantial annual contributions to two key international funds designed specifically to provide immediate finance in response to sudden onset emergencies of this kind, namely the UN central emergency response fund, CERF, and the Red Cross managed disaster relief emergency fund, DREF. Both funds, which were established to make financial aid available to their respective organisations to facilitate rapid response to humanitarian emergencies, have already released significant funds to this crisis. This year, Ireland is the sixth largest contributor to the UN's CERF with a contribution of €22.6 million and the second largest contributor to the Red Cross DREF with a contribution of €2 million.
On Saturday, 10 May we dispatched an airlift of essential humanitarian supplies from our stockpiles at the UN's humanitarian response base in Brindisi, Italy. The airlift, which was co-ordinated by the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs, OCHA and shared with Norway, landed in Yangon on Sunday 11 May. On board were large quantities of essential non-food supplies such as plastic sheeting for temporary shelter, blankets, kitchen sets and mosquito nets as well as tents, water tanks and water purification equipment provided by Norway. The supplies have been cleared and are to be distributed to affected communities. Irish supplies formed part of an earlier airlift last week shared with the Italian Government, which also pre-positions supplies in Brindisi. We are ready to make further shipments of our supplies if requested and access arrangements permit.
I have asked that our rapid response corps be put on standby for early deployment. The corps is a roster of skilled and experienced volunteers who make themselves available to deploy at short notice to humanitarian emergencies. If requested, members of the corps will be deployed to work with our partners, the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR, the World Food Programme and the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs, UNOCHA. My officials remain in ongoing contact with our partners who have a presence on the ground in Burma and those who are co-ordinating the response from Bangkok to obtain regularly updated information on the needs of affected communities.
The further tragedy of Cyclone Nargis is that it is a natural catastrophe piled upon the man-made catastrophe that has already engulfed the people of Burma, created by the ruling military regime.
A country that was once termed the "rice bowl of Asia" has over many years been reduced to abject and desperate poverty in many of its regions by mismanagement, corruption and military offensives against Burma's own people. A country rich in natural resources is now one of the ten poorest countries in the world, its wealth in precious metals, stones, minerals and hardwoods plundered by the military. There is massive diversion of state resources towards maintaining the military elite, with 40% of the national budget spent on defence, while its health care system is ranked by the WHO as 190th out of 191 surveyed nations. Chronic levels of inflation, notably a five-fold increase in fuel prices last August, sparked protests which were brutally put down by the military on 25 September.
The people of Burma have long made clear their demands for democracy, freedom, justice and economic security but these aspirations have been met by censorship, rejection, intimidation and brutal force. The overwhelming victory of the democratic opposition party, the NLD led by Ms Aung San Suu Kyi, in the 1990 elections was overturned by the military regime and opposition leaders, and anyone seen to be critical of the regime, imprisoned or otherwise silenced. On 9 February 2008, the Burmese Government announced it would hold a referendum on a new constitution in May, to be followed by multi-party democratic elections in 2010. The referendum is the fourth step in the regime's deeply flawed seven-step road map to democracy. The previous step, drafting the new constitution, was a 14-year process, from which relevant political stakeholders, including the democratic opposition and representatives of ethnic minorities were excluded. No real progress has been made in seeking to allay any of the international community's concerns that the road-map process is a political tool to guarantee a permanent role for the military in the future governance of Burma. The decision of the Burmese Government to ignore this major humanitarian disaster and proceed in most of its territory with this already fundamentally flawed referendum must be definitively deplored. Reports indicate the regime has sought to push through the new constitution with violence, intimidation and vote-rigging. This referendum cannot in any way be regarded as reflecting the real wishes of the people of Burma. It has done nothing to assist the long-term stability and democratic development of that country. Rather, by prioritising the referendum over aid distribution, the regime has put at risk hundreds of thousands of lives.
Ultimately, the only sustainable solution to the political situation in Burma is credible dialogue on democratic reform with the opposition and ethnic groups. The Irish Government continues to support the role of the UN Secretary General and that of his special envoy, Dr. Ibrahim Gambari, who was appointed after the crisis of last autumn. Dr. Gambari's good offices mission offers the best path to encourage the ending of the political crisis and achieving national reconciliation. So far, the Burmese authorities have not engaged seriously with the UN. It is vital that they do so.
Burma's neighbours, including ASEAN members and China, have a key role to play in encouraging the Burmese regime towards genuine dialogue and reform. Bilaterally and through the EU we continue to urge their proactive engagement in pressing the Burmese regime towards national reconciliation, dialogue and democracy. While, particularly last autumn, some of Burma's neighbours exerted a more active influence than heretofore, this has not so far been as sustained or effective as it needs to be. Both Dr. Gambari and UN Secretary-General Mr. Ban Ki-Moon have stressed the importance of tangible action by the Burmese regime, and have rightly made clear that the patience of the international community is running out. We believe the Security Council should be engaged in efforts to find sustainable solutions to both the immediate and longer-term problems facing the country. In the meantime, I cannot but strongly condemn the behaviour of this brutal regime that continues to put its own survival ahead of the lives of its citizens, to rule on the back of violence and repression and to ignore the aspirations of its people for freedom, justice and democracy.
I join the Leas-Chathaoirleach in welcoming the Minister to the House and congratulating him on his appointment as Minister for Foreign Affairs.
I offer my sympathies to the people of Burma and China on the tragedies that have befallen them over recent weeks. In China, in excess of 30,000 people were killed when an earthquake of 7.9 magnitude hit Sichuan province and in Burma, Cyclone Nargis left almost 134,000 dead with an estimated 2.4 million destitute. We can only imagine the horrors that face the survivors and the families devastated, and the struggle to rebuild lives in communities ripped asunder by these tragedies.
Many of us have rightly been critical of the regimes of both countries over their human rights records, and especially their treatment of minorities and their lack of democracy. However, let me put on record my praise for how China has dealt with its catastrophe and my strong criticism of the behaviour of the Burmese military. China reacted to its crisis with openness. It was willing to receive all the help and support offered by other nations, placing the rights of its people to survive above any sense of political and governmental pride.
Worldwide we have experts in the non-governmental sector who know how to deal with natural disasters, as the Minister stated. These are people who know from direct experience what needs to be done in the immediate aftermath of such disasters. They know from all too many past experiences how to assemble aid and get it to the people speedily, what health problems will arise for survivors and how quickly these problems surface. Faced with a disaster of biblical proportions, China acted courageously and immediately, and many who might otherwise have perished survived because of that swift action.
Would that the Burmese military had shown the same willingness to place the needs of their people above the ego of their regime. Sadly, they did not. The regime shut out the world at a time when it needed the help and support of other nations. It slammed the door on the non-governmental organisations which could have helped save lives and which so desperately wanted to do so. The staffs of those NGOs, who could have helped, are prepared for all that follows from such disasters — the spread of disease, the appearance of malnutrition and the emotional trauma of people losing whole families.
Two weeks on, we have a man-made calamity which resulted from what was a natural disaster. British Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, perhaps summed it up best when he told BBC One's "The Politics Show" that hundreds of thousands of survivors were at risk. He stated: "A national disaster is turning into a humanitarian catastrophe of genuine epic proportions, largely because of what I would describe as the malign neglect of the regime." The Minister, Deputy Martin, stated something similar in his speech in the House, and I welcome those remarks.
The International Federation of the Red Cross has told us that the aid getting to the victims in Burma was nowhere near the level required. Almost two weeks later, with hundreds of thousands of people in a large part of the country facing a crisis which is growing deeper by the day, the Burmese military regime still refuses to allow aid workers in, leaving ships laden with aid in the seas off Burma waiting for permission to land. It is an appalling vista.
When a Sky News team managed to get to some victims, having circumvented the virtual news blackout the regime had imposed, their report now stands as a powerful indictment of the military regime. Their reports showed bloated bodies floating through the floodwaters and other horrific sights. They showed people, left to themselves by their uncaring government, having to throw ropes around the corpses and pull them away from populated areas. One old woman recounted how a military flight had dropped aid down to the hundreds below. The aid was four packs of noodles. It hardly could be called a token. It could even be called an insult. The people of Burma do not need insults. They need food, aid and medical supplies.
However, the Burmese regime knows all about insulting its citizens. Since 1962 the people of Burma have had to endure a brutal military dictatorship. It has long shown its contempt for the Burmese people. Mass murder of civilians to protect the power of the military has become standard conduct. Hidden behind the guise of a one-party state the military for decades ran the state as their own fiefdom, using its natural resources to line their own pockets while leaving millions in dire poverty.
When, in the first democratic elections in 30 years, the people of Burma elected the National League of Democracy to govern them under Ms Aung San Suu Kyi, winning 392 out of 489 seats in parliament, the military refused to hand over power, imprisoning Ms Aung San Suu Kyi for decades. She is still imprisoned.
The exploitation of the people of Burma by their military dictators has seen 800,000 subject to forced labour, leading to a threat from the International Labour Organisation to seek "to prosecute members of the ruling Myanmar junta for crimes against humanity" over the continuous forced labour of its citizens by the military.
Only last year, yet more protests against the dictatorship, this time by Buddhist monks, were brutally repressed. I recall the debate in this House on the situation in Burma after those protests. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that the Burmese military have been so willing to treat their own people with such contempt that they would not allow international NGOs to help the survivors in their desperate plight.
Recent reports suggest that the death toll may run to 140,000. The United Nations has projected that 1 million people may have been left homeless. The World Food Programme has stated that: "Some villages have been almost totally eradicated and vast rice-growing areas are wiped out." The World Health Organisation has reported outbreaks of malaria in the worst affected areas. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon expressed, "deep concern, and immense frustration, at the unacceptably slow response to this grave humanitarian crisis". Ban called, "in the most strenuous terms, on the Government of Myanmar to put its people's lives first", and yet the military during those crucial early ten days would not let aid, either in terms of manpower or food, be delivered to its people.
The US military tell us that about 11,000 servicemen and four ships are in the region for a military exercise and could be harnessed to help, yet it was not until 13 May, ten days after the disaster, that the first US military plane carrying 14 tonnes of food and medical supplies was allowed to land.
NGOs, going on the record of Burma's military, were wary of handing over aid to the military. "The delivery of relief supplies can't be left entirely in the hands of Burma's abusive military, or aid simply won't reach those most in need," according to Mr. Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. He also said: "Without independent monitors on the ground, we can't be sure the aid is reaching those most at risk." Those fears are justified, as Human Rights Watch explained. Human Rights Watch confirmed an Associated Press report in which high-protein biscuits supplied by the international community had been seized by the military, and low-quality, locally produced substitutes were delivered instead to communities in need. Even at times of crisis the Burmese military cannot resist trying to steal from its citizens.
Human Rights Watch also reports that CNN footage showed a US aid plane being unloaded by Burmese men wearing T-shirts with a "USDA" logo. The logo is that of Burma's Union Solidarity Development Association, which is a mass-based governmental organization deeply implicated in political repression and human rights abuses in Burma. Burma's Government often tried in the past to impose co-operation with the USDA on international humanitarian agencies operating in the country. The International Red Cross code of conduct stipulates that aid must be given impartially, calculated on the basis of need alone, without adverse distinction of any kind. It also states that unimpeded access to affected populations is fundamental, while those providing assistance are expected to ensure appropriate monitoring of aid distribution and to conduct assessments regularly of the impact of disaster assistance.
The code of conduct also sets out recommendations for governments of disaster-affected countries. Governments should permit proffered assistance and facilitate rapid access to disaster victims. They should waive visa requirements or ensure they are rapidly granted. Relief supplies and equipment should be allowed free and unrestricted passage and should not be subject to usual import licenses or taxes. Given its record, it is hardly surprising that the Burmese military seems so unwilling to obey these basic rules on humanitarian aid. I hope that China, which has recently witnessed its own natural disaster, will now see the Burmese junta in a different light and exert the strongest possible pressure on it to allow all international agencies into the country to administer aid to all who need their help and support.
I would like to take this opportunity to compliment the Irish NGOs and departmental officials who are co-ordinating aid relief from Bangkok. Let us hope that much needed aid such as food, water and medical supplies will eventually reach the impoverished people of Burma, who are persecuted on a daily basis by this cruel and savage regime. Let us hope they will eventually see democracy in their country. We spoke about this regime only a couple of months ago in this House, and we hope that the aid will eventually reach these people.
I welcome the Minister of State and I congratulate him on his new appointment. As Government spokesperson on foreign affairs in this House, I look forward to working with him and doing what I can to help him when he is in this Chamber.
I welcome the opportunity to say a few words on the crisis in Burma. I join with others in offering my sympathy to the Burmese people. Cyclone Nargis, which occurred on 2 and 3 May, caused huge destruction, injuries and loss of life. It occurred under the dictatorship of the all-powerful Burmese military regime, and I understand from reports that the authorities there had 48 hours' notice of the cyclone, but had no contingency plans to help vulnerable people. This struck me as very serious.
I looked at the map to see the area destroyed, which is known as the delta area. The cyclone destroyed communication lines and inflicted damage on buildings. Roads and waterworks were destroyed, while there is no water or electricity. This occurred under the watch of the military regime. According to UN and Red Cross estimates, it is feared that more than 130,000 people have died, while more than 1.5 million people are in need of assistance. I also understand that 50% of the population live in the cyclone affected areas.
There are major challenges in mounting this operation to deliver sufficient levels of assistance to the affected communities. The Government in Burma is refusing to accept international humanitarian assistance. There are still major health problems two weeks after the cyclone, and the vulnerable communities are suffering due to a lack of access to drinking water or sanitation, while the risk of disease is colossal. While I acknowledge that some supplies finally seem to be getting through, they are nowhere near enough to meet the needs of the affected population. The Burmese Government has been curtailing this distribution and will not allow those experienced in providing aid relied to go into the country.
Burma is a rich country, with great natural resources in metal, stone and minerals. These resources are being plundered by the junta, which is diverting state resources to maintain the lifestyle of its members. Of the 50 million people living in Burma, 30% are very poor and operating below the poverty line. They are malnourished and they have no education. With this background, how can we get aid into the country? It is only right that we make known our views about democracy and on how we can assist these people.
The regime made promises that the country would move towards democracy, with a planned referendum followed by elections. The decision of the Burmese Government effectively to ignore the major humanitarian disaster and to proceed with this referendum in most of its territory can only be deplored. It clearly indicates that the Government was more worried about itself rather than the lives of the people in the country. The referendum will not reflect the real wishes of the people of Burma, and the new constitution is a sham. Prioritising the referendum over aid distribution clearly indicates that the continuation of the military junta and the lifestyle of Burma's rulers is more important than the lives of the most vulnerable, who do not seem to matter.
We need dialogue on democratic reform. The UN Secretary General must get involved and we must bring the Burmese Government to the table. We must call on the country's neighbours, namely, China, India and south-east Asian countries such as Thailand and Indonesia to push for this reform. We in Ireland will continue to do everything we can through the EU to urge proactive engagement in pushing the Burmese regime towards democracy.
The obstruction of the international aid effort by the Burmese Government is simply not acceptable. We welcome the contribution by the Irish Government of €1 million for emergency relief. That has been channelled through the NGOs, UN agencies and the Red Cross. I also welcome the support, through its substantive annual contribution to respond to emergencies, of the UN central emergency response fund and the Red Cross managed disaster relief emergency fund. The purpose of these is to facilitate the rapid response to humanitarian emergencies.
There is a great sense of volunteerism in Ireland, for which we are known. We have dispatched non-food humanitarian supplies of plastic sheeting for temporary shelter, blankets, mosquito nets and tents to be distributed to the affected communities. The rapid response corps is on standby, ready for deployment to humanitarian emergencies.
The people in Burma have long made demands for democracy, freedom of expression and justice but these aspirations have been met by censorship. Those critical of the regime were imprisoned or otherwise silenced. The Burmese authorities have isolated the cyclone areas from the rest of the world and expelled foreign aid workers. Only a trickle of international aid is reaching the 2 million people made homeless. Through the EU Presidency, an emergency meeting of the General Affairs Council has been convened to underline the severity of the crisis alongside the UN Secretary General and to express support for any initiative to help those affected.
I acknowledge the strong support of the efforts of the UN Red Cross and the NGOs to bring aid to the Burmese people. It is important that this aid be administered and monitored by experienced humanitarian staff. I urge the Burmese authorities to facilitate access to the international experts and expedite delivery of visas and travel permits. Ireland has come to the fore in calling for full and free access to the affected areas through embassies in neighbouring countries and will continue to use diplomatic influence to improve the situation. Knowing that China has experienced its own earthquake, it may be able to push for access to humanitarian aid. I deplore what has happened. I am reading the newspaper reports every day and cannot say strongly enough how much each of us must push for democracy in a country that has been so silenced through the years. Through the UN, the EU and the General Affairs Council we may be able to push forward moves to bring reform.
I join with my colleagues in welcoming my former comrade on the Joint Committee on Transport, the Minister of State, Deputy Peter Power, to the House. I congratulate him on his elevation and also Deputy Micheál Martin on his assignation to the Department of Foreign Affairs, which is a plum job in Government, even though one must sometimes confront difficult and tragic situations such as this.
This is one of the situations where we are all united. I listened with great interest to the thoughtful contribution of Senator Cummins and also to the considered view of Senator Ann Ormonde. I compliment her on continuing to speak when she had some difficulty, which she courageously managed to overcome. It is welcome that she put her views on the record because it makes it clear that from the Minister down we are all singing from the same hymn sheet.
This was a natural catastrophe. A series of elements must be considered because this was predicted. Two, three and four years ago people talked about the places that would be most vulnerable in the world in terms of global warming and the change in weather systems. A low-lying delta region, the Irrawaddy Delta, was obviously one that would be focussed on. This has happened before and General Than Shwe ran away from the place where he created the capital, Yangon. He would not face his people in the moment of tragedy.
I am often harshly critical of the Chinese Government and its approach but what a contrast there is in the way the Chinese leadership rolled up its sleeves and showed solidarity with its people when it was confronted by a parallel disaster. That disaster has repercussions for this situation because Chinese attention is understandably and inevitably diverted from its neighbour to coping with its own situation. China will be less able to co-operate with the rest of the world in exerting pressure but it is part of the key. It has given massive military aid to the Burmese Government, which I deplore and regret, and is involved in trade in oil and gas. China is a key player, so this is a double tragedy.
The existing situation was awful. Thanks to the regime there has been accelerating poverty — an impoverishment of its people — ever since it got into power. It continues to persecute all the democratic elements, the best known of which is the heroic woman Aung San Suu Kyi, of whom, I am sorry to say, we have heard little during the recent crisis. I sincerely hope her well-being is protected and that we ensure this through our diplomatic agencies.
Before this cyclone occurred, 75% of the people lived below the poverty line and one third of Burmese children were at least moderately malnourished. The army had the largest forcibly conscripted child soldier element in the world. They cared little for their own people but managed to stagger on because of resources and links with surrounding countries. Thailand has the highest trade balance with the Burmese, principally because of the Thai Government's purchase of natural gas, which is considerable. Thailand is the principal country propping up of the Burmese regime. In 2005, the Burmese Government imposed a massive increase in the domestic price of the essential supplies of oil and gas.
Last autumn, we discussed the riots that took place when a peaceful demonstration led by Buddhist monks was savagely attacked and repressed by the Burmese Government. I drew a contrast between the behaviour of the Chinese Government and the Burmese Government but there is also an internal contrast to be drawn between the ruthless efficiency in the way they galvanised military resources to repress their people and their impotence in confronting this disaster and coming positively to the aid of their people. It is an obscenity that they leave planeloads of aid, food and medical supplies stranded on the tarmac in surrounding countries, that they inhibit the issuing of visas and that they continue their profligate lifestyles despite the fact that the Burmese people are suffering.
There is a role of dishonour, a role of international shame that does not stop with members of the Burmese junta. After the repression and violence visited on the Burmese people, India, China, Malaysia and Thailand continued to negotiate financial arrangements with the Burmese junta. Perhaps they thought this was "constructive engagement", a phrase I first heard in the context of dealings with the military regime in Burma but, does it work? When Burma joined the Association of South East Asian Nations, ASEAN, in 1997 there were 210,000 Burmese refugees in neighbouring countries. Before the cyclone hit and, following this "constructive engagement" by the ASEAN countries, this figure had almost tripled to 750,000.
I referred earlier to the issue of oil. The situation in this regard is instructive and interesting and goes back as far 1871 when the British, who do not have a particularly good record either, were in control and the Rangoon Oil Company was established. During the closing decades of the last century natural gas was discovered. Various groups were involved including the British, French and the Americans. The American companies involved, Texaco and Unocal, behaved in a brutal manner and collaborated with the military junta in the exploitation of the natural resources. This is important because it calls into question the words of President Bush and his wife. Correct though they were, the source of those words actually pollutes them because they have no moral status whatever.
I will provide another contrast for the House, namely, that between President Bush's fine words in chiding the Burmese authorities and his record with regard to Hurricane Katrina. The manner in which he abandoned his own racially inferior groups, as no doubt they were seen in some sections following the hurricane, is a mirror image of what happened in Burma. Let us consider further Unocal, the oil company to which I referred earlier.
In 1996, a human rights suit was filed against Unocal by local villagers whose men were conscripted, forcibly dislodged from their land and whose women were raped, with their children taken away as soldiers. This was to facilitate the construction of a $1.2 billion gas pipeline to take natural gas into Thailand. The suit was settled by Unocal in 2004, which means it admitted a degree of liability, as a result of the unearthing of the situation by international agencies. One woman gave personal testimony of how the soldiers came to her home, shot her husband and killed her baby. Others said their neighbours had been executed in front of them because they refused to leave the area Unocal wanted and so on.
In 1995, the United Nations put out warnings about serious human rights abuses following which Texaco left Burma but Unocal remained and continues to retain a 28% share in the pipeline. Members may wonder where this is leading; it is leading directly to the Bush Administration. The US State Department acknowledged that slave labour was being used and defended Unocal against the suit taken by the local villagers because it believed it was inimical to United States foreign policy and, in particular, to the so-called war on terror.
There are lessons for us all. The international community needs to get involved in the way we have. I was interested to hear the outrage expressed by the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Martin, whom I have known for many years and who is usually moderate and diplomatic, in the final paragraph of his speech when he excoriated the regime in Burma. I pay tribute to the local people about whom we have heard very little. They have had to struggle through mud and wreckage. We have all heard the descriptions of forests pelted by the cyclone to such an extent the trees were like groups of stalks and of the stench of death coming from the corpses. The scale of the disaster is such that approximately 130,000, possibly 200,000 or 250,000 people have been affected.
One phrase seems to sum up the scale of the devastation. Even the efforts now being weakly consented to by the Burmese authorities were described by a local Burmese man as, "Like throwing sesame seeds at a hungry elephant". That is the scale of this disaster. It is welcome that we are all united in our support for the tragic situation in which the Burmese people find themselves and in condemnation of the regime there. I hope to God that tragic as is the situation, it may at last put the skids under that lousy government.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House and congratulate him on his appointment. I am sure responding to issues like this will be grist to his mill however unpalatable are the events that lie behind it.
Scientifically, the reasons violent weather events occur are fairly well known to us though philosophically and theologically probably less so. There is no easy, political answer as to how they should be dealt with. A number of years ago, the United States, the most prosperous nation in the world and most open and democratic, failed to deal adequately with the effects of a hurricane in New Orleans.
At the same time this catastrophic event happened in Burma, the Chinese Government, a government with a number of foreign policy difficulties and human rights violations within its own borders, has responded quite well to a similar catastrophe. It has done so by showing an openness not shown by the Burmese authorities. Its acceptance of €1 million in aid from Ireland is a sign of the recognition by the Chinese authorities for the need to accept assistance from whatever source to deal with what is a human catastrophe.
The difficulty is that Burma has been always a closed state, run for the interests of a select few. I recall as a teenager my father bringing a wall chart from the National Geographic magazine showing the peoples of South East Asia, not alone in Burma but in Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. We have learned since then not only about the systematic political crackdown on the forces of democracy represented by Aung Sang Suu Kyi but also the ethnic violence perpetrated on people like the Karen people in Burma. Yet, in a natural catastrophe like this, it seems to heap insult on a people living a miserable life that we in the developed world have failed to respond adequately.
Some months ago, we discussed in this House the failure to adequately support an internal uprising in Burma largely led by Buddhist monks. Now, a short time later we find ourselves speaking about what is a benighted country in terms of its recent history. That said, however odious the regime that exists there, we must put aside our political differences and try to use every means at our disposal to ensure assistance gets into Burma as quickly as possible. It is more than a little frustrating to hear that 300 people from ASEAN countries are being allowed in by the Burmese Government and that a conference by the United Nations and ASEAN will be held next week in order to decide how best to get aid in to the country.
We must do things differently and better. On every ground, the Burmese regime is failing its people and its country. However, we must put this aside and use whatever mechanisms and resources are available to us as a country, which has some stock in terms of international relations, to assuage the misery inflicted on the Burmese people. It has been admitted already that some 80,000 people are dead, a further 60,000 people are missing and millions are affected by displacement. We need to be practical and thanks to the existence of the Burmese Government, what we are doing is far from adequate.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House. Like my colleague, Senator Boyle, I wish to express my party's concern at the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis in Burma. An estimated 128,000 people are dead and a further 1.5 million are at risk of disease and starvation. The international community is having difficulty providing the type of aid which countries subject to natural disasters such as cyclones are usually willing to receive. The junta in Burma appears to regard the admission of Western aid specialists as a political threat rather than as the vital assistance from the international community which it represents. It presents the question to the international community as to how we respond.
Two issues are raised. The first is whether the international community has the capacity to act quickly, as my colleague Senator Boyle stated, rather than have a slow and inadequate response to a serious humanitarian crisis. The second is what the international community does in exceptional circumstances such as these where the government of the affected country whose population is at serious risk of further massive loss of life does not accept the international aid available to it.
The first issue was adequately dealt with in an article in The Irish Times this morning which called for the establishment of international emergency services. This also seems to be reflected in the thinking when the Lisbon treaty was put together. The establishment of a European voluntary humanitarian corps is one of the provisions of the treaty and it anticipates a rapid and effective response to a natural disaster such as that which occurred in Burma. The European Union is ensuring it has the legal basis to be able to respond and the ability to develop the capacity to do so effectively and in a coherent way.
The article in The Irish Times argues in favour of the need for such a response capacity at international level and the United Nations seems to be the appropriate body. The European Union's attempt to develop this capacity within its structures is welcome but we need such structures at UN level so we can respond to natural disasters. If we accept that the type of threats presented by climate change and global warming will occur more frequently, it is right and proper that the international community puts these structures in place. Will the Minister of State raise this within the Council of Ministers and at the United Nations and allow the idea to gain currency? We need to see it happening sooner rather than later.
A more sensitive issue is that of intervention where a government, such as the Burmese junta, refuses to accept the aid offered by the international community despite the desperate and awful circumstances in which the population finds itself. In such circumstances, we must put in place a new legal framework within the structure of the UN to allow for intervention in the interest of the common good where extraordinary circumstances prevail. This is not to underestimate the principle of national sovereignty. The territorial sovereignty of any State is well established in international law. However, exceptional circumstances can arise and we should have consensus within the international community in this regard. I hope Ireland will play its part in raising these issues within the Security Council and in other UN structures.
This is the first debate on foreign affairs we have had since my friends and colleagues, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Micheál Martin, and the Minister of State, Deputy Peter Power, took office and I wish them every success in their new portfolios. As Chairman of the Oireachtas Sub-Committee on Human Rights, I am glad to have this opportunity to contribute to this important debate. We are all deeply saddened by the terrible tragedy which struck Burma. However, we are equally angered by the uncaring response of the Burmese military junta to the humanitarian needs of the millions of people whose lives have been devastated by the destruction of the cyclone.
On 2 May, much of southern Burma, particularly the area surrounding the delta of the Irrawaddy River, was struck by a powerful cyclone. The effects were devastating along the entire coastal region of the country but particularly in the low-lying delta area. Thousands of people were killed, many of whom were drowned by the sheer force of the cyclone and the rapidly rising waters in the delta area.
Cyclone Nargis has left an enormous human tragedy and massive physical destruction in its wake. The exact number of those who died is as yet unknown. It is estimated that the figure could be approximately 78,000 people with many more still missing. Today, a national newspaper quoted a figure of 128,000.
The UN believes that approximately 2.5 million people were affected by the impact of the cyclone. Their homes, often poorly constructed, were either extensively damaged or in many cases simply blown away by the force of the cyclone. The poor infrastructure could not withstand the strength of the storm. Roads are still blocked by flooding and debris is making access by water to the worst affected region difficult. Some of this debris is dead bodies.
Millions are fleeing the affected areas because there has been no adequate response by the Burmese military junta to their plight. People are short of food, have little or no clean water and are woefully short of medical supplies. Entire villages are still cut off. People have been traumatised by their experience and their future is a fight for survival.
In many cases children have nothing to eat and there is a serious threat of water-borne diseases from the many human and animal corpses rotting in the water. While limited amounts of aid have been distributed and aid agencies state that approximately 250,000 people have received rations, 150,000 people are reported to be in refugee camps and up to 1 million people have received no aid or support.
I contrast this with what happened in the aftermath of the tsunami which hit much of south-east Asia at the end of 2004. This was another devastating natural disaster with more death and destruction on an horrific scale. The images of the tsunami, which also struck without warning, are still fresh in our minds. However, we also recall the instant and immediate reaction of the international community to this terrible catastrophe to help those whose lives were shattered and whose livelihoods were destroyed by the tsunami.
From around the world, assistance and aid poured into those places where the tsunami struck. Food and medical supplies were flown in. Aid workers from the United Nations, international humanitarian agencies and aid agencies around the world rushed to the region to help. Ireland was one of those countries quick to respond and offer assistance. Roads and bridges were quickly constructed to allow aid and aid workers access to remote areas where much of the infrastructure had been destroyed. There was a universal outpouring of sympathy for those who had suffered from the tsunami and this sympathy was backed up by humanitarian action. No restrictions were placed on those who wished to help, and rightly so.
What is happening now in Burma could not be more different. My understanding and perception of various reports I have read is the reaction of the Burmese military government up to now has been to do everything in its power to block international aid and international aid workers from reaching those most in need of aid, which is disgraceful. Instead of welcoming international aid and assistance, the military government has over the past 18 days put obstacles in the way of those trying to help those who need it. Visas have been denied to aid agencies and the aid that has made it through has been woefully inadequate to meet the needs of the people. Journalists have been denied visas and those who have secured entry into the country must operate in a semi-clandestine way concealing their whereabouts or risking expulsion.
The behaviour of the military junta to date is tantamount to a violation of the human rights of the Burmese people. It is reprehensible for a government to deny its own people access to food, humanitarian aid and medicine when they most need it and it is immoral to refuse to allow international aid and aid workers enter the country to help those whose lives have been devastated by a natural disaster. The lack of action by the Burmese authorities has rightly been condemned by the international community as showing a flagrant indifference by a government to the fate of its own people. It is the responsibility of a government to look after the well-being of its people as best it can.
The military government in Burma is putting its own interests and survival before the basic needs of its people. This behaviour must be condemned without equivocation. Last September we witnessed the brutality of the military authorities in Burma to any dissent when they viciously put down protests by Buddhist monks. Their behaviour over the past two weeks demonstrates they fear that the crisis caused by the cyclone could add further fuel to the deep and genuine discontent of the people against the repressive military regime that has ruled the country for so long. There are indications over recent days that the outrage of the international community and intense diplomatic pressure on the Burmese authorities are beginning to have a limited impact. This represents the lowest possible response by the Burmese authorities to the pressure rightly put on them. Neighbouring countries will do everything they can to help relieve the terrible plight of the Burmese people. However, this limited action by the Burmese military authorities only confirms they are determined not to allow major western aid agencies and their highly skilled aid workers into the country.
French, American and British ships lie off the coast of Burma with large consignments of food aid and other supplies on board. The authorities have refused these ships permission to offload their supplies in Burmese ports. The agreement reached yesterday in Singapore will prevent the delivery of these much needed supplies. Unless the Burmese authorities make further concessions, these supplies will remain on the high seas, which must be condemned. Later this week, the Secretary General of the United Nations will visit Burma and he will convey to the Burmese military authorities the concern of the international community on what is happening in Burma. I hope he will convince them that the slight opening they have agreed to in Singapore can only be seen as a first step and is in no way a sufficient response to the calls from the international community for greater access to Burma. He must convince the Burmese generals that their obligations to their citizens would be best served by allowing the ships unload their supplies. He must also demand that UN aid agencies and other international aid agencies and aid workers be permitted immediate and unrestricted access to those areas.
I wish to share time with Senator Bradford. I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate on the ongoing political and humanitarian crisis in Burma following Cyclone Nargis and the inaction of the Burmese government in relieving the catastrophe. The authorities were busy trying to ensure their referendum was passed and they were uncompromising in this regard, stating there was a 99% turnout with a 92% acceptance rate. Under the terms of this so-called constitutional reform, 25% of seats in the parliament will be reserved for members of the military junta, which means, in future, constitutional reform can only proceed with their agreement. The junta is a disaster for the Burmese people who suffer terribly under this dictatorship every day. The latest visible symptom of this is the government's inaction following the cyclone.
The authorities are totally disinterested in helping their people and they are more interested in the control of information than the distribution of food. A BBC news report of Burmese state news coverage of the disaster prominently features members of the junta handing out aid while, according to Associated Press articles, they have renamed the aid to make it appear as if they provided it in the first instance. Burmese television has not carried footage of the disaster. Death tolls or the numbers displaced have not been mentioned. It was only after the Chinese declared a period of mourning for the lives lost in the earthquake there last week that the Burmese authorities declared the same for their country. On the basis of the limited access provided, approximately 130,000 people have died but that number is increasing daily.
Many others have been affected throughout the Irrawaddy delta. Up to 2 million people have been displaced and they have lost their homes while being subject to potential disease. The UN has four essential objectives in ensuring facilities are in place following a natural disaster: access to food, access to shelter, medical support against diseases and access to safe and clean drinking water. All are seriously lacking in the aftermath of this disaster owing to the major obstacle put in place by the military junta. Water supplies have been affected and people are crowding into monasteries to access water which is contaminated because of animal and human carcasses entering the water. Disease, fever, diarrhoea and malaria are spreading at a merciless rate and children are most at risk. Food supplies are at a worrying level. The UN said in the past 14 days the price of rice had increased by 50%, even though prices were very high, which was one of the reasons for riots last year.
A tiny proportion of the food aid that has been delivered has reached the affected people because the military authorities are hoarding the food. In recent days, the government announced it would permit aid from its Asian neighbours but that will not be sufficient. The doors of the regime must be thrown open completely to permit food in from the rest of the world. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have highlighted Burma as one of the worst human rights violators in the world. It does not have a functioning independent judiciary, Internet access is limited, children are engaged in forced labour and human trafficking is also common. The authorities control political dissent by imprisoning their opponents, and everyone will be aware of the case of Aung San Suu Kyi . The EU has put a significant trade embargo in place to ensure the regime is not supported, but this has not stopped a number of companies. One French company continues to trade with Burma but it is before the courts accused of breaking the embargo. As a member state, Ireland must ensure it does not deal with countries engaged in profitable activity in Burma.
We must do everything we can to ensure the Trojan work of the UN is supported. We need to provide all the help we can and we need to ensure we exert all the pressure we can. I welcome the Minister of State to the House and I am glad the Minister for Foreign Affairs was present for the debate earlier. It is essential aid gets through as soon as possible.
I thank Senator Hannigan for sharing time. I welcome the Minister of State to the House and I congratulate him on his new appointment. I wish him well in this responsible job.
A little ray of hope arising from the tragedy that has befallen the Burmese people is the international community giving serious attention, political and otherwise, to the situation in the country. The light is shining on Burma, which was a forgotten country in a sometimes forgotten region. However, because of the media attention, people at least are aware not only of the scale of the current tragedy but are beginning to become acclimatised to the scale of the political problem, which is at the core of all the problems faced by the Burmese people. Burma is ruled by a repressive regime. Historically, the response of all repressive regimes to any natural disaster is to shut the doors and keep out the international community. Repressive regimes do not like international attention being drawn to their countries at a time of difficulty because it causes too many questions to be asked. At least now, the international community in its response to the plight of the Burmese people is beginning to ask the necessary political questions.
In his contribution, the Minister referred to what he called the "responsibility to protect" agreement or clause, which stemmed from the UN world summit in 2005. The responsibility to protect is a very important issue. If the international community exists as a genuine grouping and if the UN is to have any degree of influence — we have discussed that matter so many times here on previous occasions particularly in respect of Iraq — surely we must be in a position to in some way trigger that mechanism because we have a responsibility to protect and intervene in whatever way possible. Food, medical and emergency supplies of all descriptions are necessary but we also have a responsibility to try to bring about political change and dialogue.
Perhaps we must acknowledge that there have been tiny steps forward in Burma. We cannot call it regime change but we can call it political change. This must be very much encouraged and continued because the people of the country in the long run cannot survive under this repressive regime. In the very short term, it is a question of immediate food, medical and support aid.
I congratulate the Government on its efforts to date but much more is required, including from the international community. At EU and UN level, we must try to keep the attention focused on Burma. We are aware of what is happening in China but at least there is a better domestic response there. It is an opportunity for us to take some small advantage of this tragedy to keep the light shining on Burma, its people and its regime and look for the necessary reforms which the people are demanding and for which they have voted but which they have not been allowed implement.
I thank the Cathaoirleach for his good wishes and those of all Members who have spoken in the brief time that I have been in the House. I am delighted that this is my first opportunity to address the Seanad on this critically important issue in respect of an unfolding humanitarian disaster.
I found all the contributions by the Members very interesting, particularly those of Senators Cummins and Ormonde, which were very thoughtful and reflective and showed a clear understanding of the strategic issues at play, as did the contribution of Senator Norris who had a very good and clear understanding of the geopolitical problems that exist in that region of the world that prevent aid from getting through. Senators Bradford, Boyle and de Búrca touched on the deep and unanimous frustration throughout the House about the inability of us as an individual country, the EU and the international community to act in a way that gets aid to the people most at need quickly. This was a thread throughout all the speeches. It is the crux of this issue and should be the central point of our discussions.
As Minister of State with responsibility for overseas aid and development, we will not be found wanting as a nation, especially as the situation unfolds and becomes more clear. We have already committed significant funds. It is practically an unprecedented situation in terms of humanitarian disasters in that as an international community with all of the knowledge and information-gathering facilities available to us, we are at a loss to know the full extent and the potential horror that is taking place in the Irrawaddy Delta. That is what makes this a unique and very difficult situation.
I reiterate the condolences of the Government and the people of Ireland to the people of Burma, especially the families of the thousands who have died in the wake of Cyclone Nargis. The enormous scale and destruction of the crisis in Burma has not yet been fully defined and detailed assessments have been hampered by infrastructural damage caused throughout the region.
There is little doubt, however, that the relief effort has also been hindered by man-made obstacles, specifically obstacles to access imposed by the Burmese Government. Together with our EU partners, we have pressed neighbouring countries to use their influence to ease the restrictions the Government of Burma has placed on the flow of international aid. We are strongly supportive of the visits to the region of EU Commissioner Louis Michel and UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, John Holmes. We very much look forward to the visit of UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, later on this week.
Already, there have been some positive signs. In response to pressure from the neighbouring ASEAN group, it appears that the Burmese authorities have agreed to an increased flow of aid to those in need provided that such aid is channelled through regional personnel and organisations. In this unfolding disaster, I do not think any of us here in this House or throughout the country are concerned about how the aid is delivered. The humanitarian imperative is that it is delivered now. That will be the focus of my energies and efforts and those of the Government in the coming weeks.
Further delays in the provision of humanitarian relief cannot be countenanced. No further time can or should be lost in meeting the enormous needs in terms of food, drinking water, shelter, sanitation and medicines of the affected communities. Together with our EU colleagues we again urgently call on the authorities in Burma to take immediate action to facilitate the flow of aid to its own people. They are in desperate need and urgently require relief offered by the humanitarian community.
A common thread through all the contributions is the stark contrast between the approach taken by its near neighbour China, which has a history of perhaps not engaging with the international community, and that of Burma. In stark contrast, China has shown what I believe is a modern and enlightened approach to its own humanitarian disaster in respect of which we also send our thoughts and condolences. China recognises modern realities and has welcomed aid, which is in marked contrast to the Burmese Government. In that regard, we have called and continue to call on the governments of China and neighbouring countries such as Thailand to use their strategic influence in the area to affect change urgently.
For its part, Ireland has responded early and decisively to the disaster. Our stocks of relief goods, which are designed for rapid response in situations such as this, have already been shipped to the area and are on the ground. We have pledged an initial €1 million in response to the disaster. I reiterate that this is an initial response and we will not be found wanting should the need arise.
In addition, we have been approached by Concern to activate a special Irish Aid emergency response fund to this crisis. This is a two-year pilot programme which provides for a special fund from Irish Aid, my own section of the Department, to our three main NGO partners which can be activated by simple telephone call approval. I have approved the necessary relief of funds under this provision and look forward to those funds reaching the people in need on the ground as urgently as possible.
If the Burmese authorities live up to their undertakings to their ASEAN neighbours, we should quickly have a clearer picture of the scale of the disaster and of the level of need. We stand ready to respond further over the coming period. Our partners in the humanitarian community, the UN, the NGOs and the Red Cross, which operates in Burma in immensely difficult and trying circumstances, deserve enormous credit and recognition by this House and praise from the international community for what they are doing. They have our full support and encouragement in their efforts to save the lives and rebuild the lives and livelihoods of those affected by this appalling tragedy. Ultimately, although Cyclone Nargis has brought so much suffering to the people of Burma, the callous behaviour of the Burmese Government in the face of such an outpouring of goodwill and assistance from the international community has exacerbated this awful human tragedy.