India's assistance to Myanmar must reflect its regional role

The Asian Legal Resource Centre (ALRC) appreciates the initiative taken by the Government of India in responding to the catastrophe that has devastated Myanmar. According to India's Ministry of External Affairs, India has dispatched two ships, INS Rana and INS Kirpan from the Indian Navy's Eastern Fleet, which has reached Yangon today with relief and medical supplies. India is also considering sending two Indian Air Force aircrafts with additional relief materials, which is also scheduled to reach Myanmar today.

India is a nation that is well aware of the intensity of devastation a natural calamity could bring to a country. India knows the pain and the loss such calamities could bring upon a populace. India is aware of what poverty means and has experience in dealing with the suffering of a poverty-stricken population after natural disasters. One of the founding doctrines of the Indian Constitution is alleviation of poverty. India being a state that was elected to UN Human Rights Council with the maximum number of votes has a moral as well as legal responsibility to reach out to Myanmar and its people.

Amidst the chaos and confusion in Myanmar after the tragedy; the urgent requirements for help of the ordinary people and the allegations and suspicions about the fairness and efficiency in distributing relief supplies; it is imperative that the Government of India must also ensure using its good offices so that the relief supplies in fact find those who are in immediate need. The healthy relationship between the two countries must be an added advantage for India to deal with this issue.

The latest reports from Myanmar suggest that the actual death toll might be much higher than 22,500, a figure that is reported by the military administration in Myanmar. The fact that an estimated 50,000 or more persons are currently reported missing, the massive loss of property and farmlands and the absence of safe drinking water sources are suggestive denominators to the reality that more persons are likely to die in the following days or are already dead.

Additionally, a large proportion of the general population in Myanmar is reported to be suffering from acute malnutrition much prior to cyclone Nargis devastating the country. The poor state of health of the people in Myanmar and poverty is yet another factor that might contribute to a high death toll in the coming days.

It is in times of extreme necessities like the devastation that has hit Myanmar, that any administration must encourage a joint effort from all fronts to provide help to the victims. Probably the Government of India, having sixty years of experience of working in a multi-party democratic system would be a good candidate to guide the administration in Myanmar to take an all inclusive approach in dealing with the current situation. India being a strategic member of sub regional groupings like the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMST-EC) and the Mekong Ganga Cooperation, could guide the administration in Myanmar with relative ease towards achieving this end.

Any improvement in the situation in Myanmar will not only help the people in that country but will also benefit the Indo-Myanmar relationship. India's stake in the bilateral trade between the two countries which stands slightly more than 425 million USD will only benefit from the assistance India offer to Myanmar at this juncture. In addition to the Government of India there are other groups in India like the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) that would be willing to help both the Government of India and the administration in Myanmar in improving the current situation.

The CII must be consulted to generously contribute to increase the current rate of supply of pharmaceuticals to Myanmar, an essential requirement for relief operations in that country. The CII which has entered into a Memorandum of Understanding with the Union of Myanmar Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry (UMFCCI) could collaborate with the UMFCCI to ensure the proper distribution of medical supplies in Myanmar.

It is reported that the cyclone has devastated the minimal infrastructure that existed in Myanmar for transport. The Indian Border Roads Organisation that successfully completed the 160 kilometer India-Myanmar Friendship Road in Myanmar in 2001, which also holds a contact to maintain this road for a period ending in this year must be mobilised to repair the damages caused to the transportation facilities in Myanmar after the cyclone.

The expertise of the Indian Railways could also be called upon to repair the damages caused to the rail lines in Myanmar. The helicopter squadron leased out to Myanmar by India must be pressed into relief operations with immediate effect. Without facilities for transportation no relief operation can proceed and the chances are that with a failed transportation infrastructure, the relief supplies arriving in Yangon will remain in Yangon. In the past, when similar catastrophes hit Bangladesh, India has spared no resources in reaching out to that country.

In addition, India being one of the immediate neighbours of Myanmar that has experienced professionals in dealing with the causalities arising out of natural calamities could provide further manpower to assist the relief operations in Myanmar. The Government of India could also consider relocating persons who are seriously injured for better treatment to hospitals in India. The fact that the Government of India and the administration in Myanmar has a good working relationship might make India's offer to help more acceptable to the relatively secretive administration in Myanmar.

While the equitable and timely distribution of relief supplies is important, the Government of India also must encourage the administration in Myanmar to welcome other offers of help extended to Myanmar. There are several non-governmental organisations operating from India and abroad that have expressed earnestness and preparedness in helping Myanmar. However, it is reported that these offer for help has been treated with great suspicion by the administration in Myanmar. The Government of India could also explore its possibilities in engaging with the administration in Myanmar to accept such help.

India being the largest regional democratic power must lead way in the relief operations conducted in Myanmar. The Indian initiatives in Myanmar must not be reduced to a spontaneous action out of mere compassion. It must reflect India's much asseverated pragmatism and its diplomatic and political strength.

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About the ALRC: The Asian Legal Resource Centre is an independent regional non-governmental organisation holding general consultative status with the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations. It is the sister organisation of the Asian Human Rights Commission. The Hong Kong-based group seeks to strengthen and encourage positive action on legal and human rights issues at the local and national levels throughout Asia.