Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Will the Cyclone Encourage Social Reform in Burma?

Sources: Financial Times, USA Today,

The cyclone that hit Burma on May 3 left an estimated 133,000 dead or missing and wrecked havoc throughout the country. Food, water, shelter, and medical care is badly needed for the 2.5 million cyclone survivors, especially those residing in the impoverished Irrawaddy delta region. Initially, General Than Shwe, the leader of Burma’s leading military junta, balked at allowing international aid workers to enter the country. British and American ships offering food and other supplies arrived soon after the cyclone, but were not allowed to dock in Burma. Since the junta violently put down a pro-democracy uprising in 1988, killing 3,000 people, the junta has been very suspicious of the US and foreigners trying to overthrow their military government.

However, on May 23, in a meeting with UN secretary-general Ban Ki-Moon and representatives from 50 countries, Gen. Than Shwe agreed to allow all foreign aid workers access to the country. The UN has planned a $201m, six-month relief effort for the cyclone survivors’ immediate aid. Western officials view this concession as a potential turning point in Burma’s relations with the rest of the world. Since 1988, international financial institutions, such as the World Bank and the IMF, have denied Burma access to any funds -- citing that major political and human rights reforms are necessary before Burma can gain access to loans.

Access to international financial institutions will become increasingly important for Burma’s future given the estimated $10b in losses the cyclone caused. The World Bank has stated that it will not change its stance on Burma, but that it has offered technical assistance to the country. Whether General Than Shwe and the junta’s recent concessions to international aid organizations will lead to further political and social reforms in Burma remains to be seen. Such reforms will be necessary if Burma wants to have access to desperately needed funds.

Should the World Bank continue to deny Burma funds even during such catastrophic emergencies?

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