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disaster in burma

devastated Myanmar — a 3.6-metre wall of water sweeping away entire villages, leaving the coastal plain under water, thousands dead, missing or…

devastated Myanmar — a 3.6-metre wall of water sweeping away entire villages, leaving the coastal plain under water, thousands dead, missing or homeless and much of the capital city of Yangon without electricity or water.

Witnesses say the rain fell so hard it scarred people’s faces, like a burn. Relief workers have never witnessed anything like it.

It is the sort of disaster that brings the world together in a desire to help, and the reaction of governments, the United Nations and international humanitarian organizations has been swift and noble.

There is no time to waste.

We wish we could also say that this is no time for politics, but that simply would not be true.

Myanmar — the name the junta gave to Burma — has been ruled by military dictatorship for 46 years, increasingly isolated and struggling under economic sanctions by the United States and Europe.

Last September, the junta crushed peaceful protest marches by Buddhist monks.

These repressive policies contributed greatly to the disaster.

Crushing poverty left many coastal communities more vulnerable to the storm than they otherwise might have been, and the government-controlled news media failed to issue timely warnings.

The fear now is that the generals may create obstacles to the rescue operation, which will require moving volumes of supplies as well as large numbers of aid workers, many from countries hostile to the regime.

Though the junta took the unusual step of asking for foreign assistance, the information minister suggested that only “friendly countries” would be allowed to help.

It is still not clear whether aid workers will require visas.

The junta also has refused to cancel a referendum scheduled for next Saturday on a constitution that claims to be a step toward democracy.

The referendum, which will effectively leave the military in control anyway, will divert attention from recovery efforts.

None of this should dissuade any government or agency from trying to help.

World Vision Canada has 580 relief workers in Burma providing bottled water, tents, tarpaulins, clothing and emergency medicines.

Canada’s International Development Agency has pledged $2 million, to be distributed through the UN, the International Red Cross and the World Food Program.

“We urge the government to allow international organizations to proceed with an effective aid operation so that this challenge can be addressed and people suffering can be reduced,” said Bev Oda, Canada’s International Co-operation minister.

US President Bush pledged $3.25 million on Tuesday.

He said the United States stood ready to “do a lot more” — including deploying American naval assets to assist rescue and aid distribution efforts—but first the junta must approve and let American disaster teams assess the damage.

Helping the people of Burma is the immediate task.

In time, the world can redouble its effort to free Burma from the great disaster of the junta itself. ... (NYT)