Susan Banki received a Sylff fellowship between 1999 and 2002 while attending the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. She has written numerous articles on Burma. This article, written in the wake of Cyclone Nargis, was originally featured in the May 2008 issue of the Far Eastern Economic Review (Vol. 171, No. 4) and has been posted here by courtesy of FEER.

Activists who promote political reform in Burma have, for years, debated the advisability of allowing international aid into the country. Many groups have argued that Burma's military junta selectively distributes all aid through government channels and hence only strengthens the authoritarian regime. But in the wake of Cyclone Nargis, which has killed as many as 140,000 and displaced as many as 2.5 million, there is a general consensus among even the most strident supporters of aid sanctions that Burma urgently needs international assistance.

It's a bitter irony, then, that when the country needs it the most, Burma's generals have been slow to allow humanitarian aid to enter. While intense pressure from the international community has improved the flow of aid somewhat, only a fraction of international assistance has yet entered the country, and Burma continues to block visas for humanitarian workers.

There is no question that Burma needs more aid. That is the first priority. But some ways of giving aid will be more effective than others, and some even have the potential to induce political transformation in Burma, as the 2004 tsunami served as a catalyst for reconciliation in the Indonesian province of Aceh.

While Aceh and Burma are dissimilar in many ways (foremost among them that the secessionist movement in Aceh was in the process of discussing a peace agreement when the tsunami hit, while the recent referendum in Burma excluded much of the opposition), if the international community can draw on some of the lessons learned in Aceh, it will increase the likelihood of political reform in Burma. Thus, here are some strategies for maximizing the effectiveness of aid immediately and encouraging the possibility of reconciliation in the intermediate term.

First, the international community must continue to push for more aid to enter the country. United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's visit to Burma this week is an encouraging sign, and the fact that 10 U.N. helicopters were allowed to fly aid into the country, is hopefully a sign that the junta is loosening its grip. While reliable reports indicate that some aid is being sold on the black market in the capital, Rangoon, the need continues to be so great that whatever aid makes it into the country will improve the lives of some of Burma's terribly impoverished citizens.

Second, aid agencies should get their foot in the door as soon as possible, even if it means compromising the humanitarian principle of independence in the short term. Burma's military-security apparatus is only so large, and the hope is that as aid enters in mass quantities, it literally overwhelms the control of Burma's generals. Thus far, the junta has proved quite resistant to influence, but now that ASEAN has agreed to handle the influx of foreign aid, more agencies may find ways to enter Burma.

Third, and related, agencies should continue to push to place more humanitarian workers on the ground. Any attempt to airdrop aid without obtaining the regime's permission is a poor substitute for the entrance of humanitarian workers. Burma needs more foreign workers not because there aren't enough logisticians and disaster experts in-country at present, as some have claimed, but rather, because foreign workers represent the best possibility of opening up Burma to the outside world. This is precisely what the regime fears, and why it continues to insist that few foreign workers be permitted to enter. Humanitarian workers from India and China, both of which have recently been permitted, is a start, but agencies should continue to lobby for access for as many foreign workers as possible.

Fourth, journalists should continue their attempts to enter Burma so they can deliver firsthand reports and keep Burma in the news. Aceh only gained attention in the international media about 10 days after the 2004 tsunami, when between 300 to 500 journalists finally were able to file onsite reports. If Burma's generals believe that media reports will make the rest of the world more sympathetic to the tragedy, and more willing to help, then they may permit some journalists to enter.

Fifth, agencies should, whenever possible, find unofficial means to work with civil society groups and Buddhist monks to distribute aid. This suggestion will prove difficult since the regime has banned monks from assisting others, has instructed citizens not to seek shelter in monasteries, and insists that all aid go through government channels. But opportunities to bypass official channels will present themselves, particularly in light of the fact some Burmese officials ignored orders to remain in the capital and instead went AWOL in search of family members. Other Burmese officials are rumored to be greatly frustrated by commands from the top that they cease helping villagers in need. These examples represent a breakdown in the military's strict hierarchy and could be a lever for incremental change.

Sixth, agencies should make attempts to build pathways for future longer-term development aid. For example, the timely prevention of cholera would be best accomplished by effective water-sanitation systems, which aid workers should try to introduce as part of their relief provisions. A caveat, however: the Burmese generals are insisting that the disaster relief phase is over and that all aid should now be focused on rehabilitation and reconstruction. Its request for 11 billion dollars must not be separated from the current relief effort, but must instead be linked to it. Linking emergency relief with development aid has two possible positive consequences: first, it sets the stage for a more robust post-emergency phase in which recipients of aid are better off, and second, it will lengthen the "window of opportunity"—the post-disaster phase when the regime is at its most vulnerable and political transformation is most possible.

Finally, all parties to the ongoing conflict in Burma should encourage dialogue and communication among opposing parties in the name of rebuilding Burma. It has been argued that one of the key catalysts for peace in Aceh was the commitment to a ceasefire by the insurgent forces, a move that made the Indonesian military more willing to permit aid into the country. In Burma, a parallel concession by opposition parties would be to refrain from pointing fingers of blame at the junta.

Responses to natural disasters in the context of conflict can initiate phases of cooperation and reconciliation, as occurred in Aceh. Alternatively, and more commonly, disaster responses can entrench current power structures and foster further conflict. This latest tragedy in Burma, must, somehow, be turned into a possibility for political transformation, by using aid carefully and effectively. Through it, the international community can create the opening that the people of Burma deserve.

Ms. Banki is a research fellow at the Institute for Ethics, Governance and Law at Griffith University in Australia. She has written numerous articles on Burmese refugees and migrants, political mobilization directed toward Burma, and aid to Burma.

This article was originally featured in the May 2008 issue of the Far Eastern Economic Review (Vol. 171, No. 4) and has been posted here by courtesy of FEER.


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Susan Rachel Banki

Susan Rachel Banki*

The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy

Received Sylff fellowship in 1999-2002. 
Visit Japan Program 2004.
Academic achievements, social engagement initiatives:
DECRA Fellow (Australia Research Council), member of Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network (APPRN)
Current affiliation: University of Sydney

Susan Banki's research interests lie in the political, institutional, and legal contexts that explain the roots of and solutions to international human rights violations. In particular, she is interested in the ways that questions of sovereignty, citizenship/membership and humanitarian principles have shaped our understanding of and reactions to various transnational phenomena, such as the international human rights regime, international migration and the provision of international aid. Susan's focus is in the Asia-Pacific region, where she has conducted extensive field research in Thailand, Nepal, Bangladesh and Japan on refugee/migrant protection, statelessness and border control. She is currently investigating the local, regional and international mechanisms (and the interactions between them) that serve as potential levers for change.

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