Ash and Cobra: A lesson for Burma

Loads of ash piles out of an Icelandic volcano, northern Europe’s airports grind to a halt, thousands of Brits are left stranded as the Daily Mail among others has reported. There’s only one option. Step forward the Cobra Committee. The reaction is swift – the Royal Navy is now heading on force for ports across Europe to bring them home as the BBC reported.Such quickfire response is in sharp contrast to the behaviour of some nations in reaction to their own natural disasters.Almost two years ago to the day, Cyclone Nargis devastated the Irrawaddy delta in Burma, killing tens of thousands of people. Even now, 14 months on, stories of the junta’s slow reaction and horrific response to the disaster are still coming to the fore.In February we released a report that carried several stories of people suffering at the hands of the authorities in the aftermath of the cyclone.A Karen woman who had failed to vote in the referendum a week later because she was burying her father, told Amnesty: “That night, four soldiers came to my house and demanded to know why I hadn’t voted, accusing me of being anti-government because I am Karen and Christian.  They threatened me and my family with jail, accusing us of having a political agenda in the midst of our grief.”Meanwhile, a popular comedian, Zarganar is serving a 35-year prison sentence for leading a private donor movement that emerged in the aftermath of the cyclone.  He was arrested on 4 June 2008, after he criticised the government’s handling of the cyclone relief situation in interviews with the foreign media.Shortly after Nargis, Amnesty received over 40 reports of aid being confiscated, diverted or withheld by government officials, instead of being handed to cyclone survivors.Natural disasters should be an opportunity for people to rally together, to show solidarity and to ensure action is swift before a humanitarian crisis unfolds. Sadly, the Burmese junta failed that test.

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