A divided UN challenged by Myanmar's obstinance

It took a natural disaster the size of Cyclone Nargis for the United Nations to find that it cannot work easily with an authoritarian regime like Myanmar, which has not warmly welcomed international aid despite high civilian deaths and destruction, dpa reported.

The UN had quickly brought assistance to victims of deadly earthquakes in Iran and Pakistan in the past, and after the 2004 tsunami in Indonesia. Governments in those countries welcomed aid and international relief workers with open arms.

It took North Korea, an isolated authoritarian regime, months in the 1990s to decide to call for international aid after severe floodings destroyed crops and spread largescale famine among the population. But the UN did provide food and medicine to help the impoverished country.

Myanmar's military junta, which clashed with the UN on democratic reform, has been extremely reluctant to accept relief workers from the outside as it is facing a major humanitarian disaster brought by Nargis.

The government was scheduled to go ahead with a national referendum this weekend on a new constitution and speculation was that it felt the less international presence the better. The next step would be presidential elections in 2010.

The draft constitution has been criticized as not inclusive because opposition members, including Aung San Suu Kyi, head of the National League for Democracy, may be barred from participating. Despite a humanitarian disaster it cannot handle, the government appears to be intent on proceeding with a questionable referendum.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on Thursday called on Myanmar to focus on solving the national tragedy without suggesting outright that the government should call off the referendum.

"Due to the scope of the disaster facing Myanmar, the secretary general believes that it may be prudent to focus instead on mobilizing all available resources and capacity for the emergency response efforts," a spokesperson said.

The UN has not made the leap of linking Myanmar's apparent rejection of foreign relief workers to the holding of the referendum, preferring to focus instead on providing food and medicine to the more than 1 million people affected by the cyclone.

The UN Security Council, which held a hand-wrangling discussion about what to do with an authoritarian government that has failed to meet the responsibility to protect its own people, found itself divided.

Council members clashed between democratic governments that want to provide aid at all costs and those that showed understanding of dictatorship regimes.

"That's the difference between democracy and dictatorship," one exasperated Western ambassador said after confronting council members on the provision of humanitarian aid.

Council members disagreed on the implementation of the UN concept of the responsibility to protect, developed in 2005, which would allow UN intervention in a major civilian humanitarian crisis regardless of national sovereignty.

Western members said that responsibility must be met in conflicts as well as in humanitarian disasters. Asian, Arab, Africa and Latin American council members said the concept applies only in conflict situations, and some of them said the council should not discuss humanitarian disasters. Period.

Western members wanted John Holmes, the UN undersecretary general for humanitarian emergency affairs, to appear before the council. But other council members opposed. Holmes himself preferred not to be caught between the two camps.

US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad expressed "outrage" that Myanmar had not welcomed international help.

"We are outraged by the slow response by the government of Burma to welcome and accept assistance," Khalilzad said, using the traditional name of the country. "It's clear that the government's capacity to deal with the situation is catastrophic."

Khalilzad suggested that Holmes appeal to UN members for help since he cannot appear before the 15-nation council.

Holmes, a former British ambassador to France, planned to launch an appeal to the international community to provide assistance to Myanmar. But he was criticized for being soft on Myanmar after some governments, including France, suggested providing relief goods at all costs.

"I don't think that invading Myanmar is a sensible option for the people in Myanmar," Holmes said on Wednesday when the amount of aid was just trickling into Myanmar. "If it was a blanket refusal by the government, it would have been a different matter, but it is not the situation we're in."

"The cooperation (from Myanmar) is reasonable and we're moving in the right direction," he said, adding that discussion between the UN and Myanmar had been "useful and constructive."

But Holmes raised the level of frustration after having to deal with a government that showed no inclination to accept the generous outpouring of relief aid.

"I am disappointed by the progress received since yesterday (Wednesday), a little of progress as I said, but nothing like as much as (is) needed given the desperate situation," Holmes told.

Myanmar has not totally waived visa requirements to foreign aid workers ready to bring much needed relief goods to the more than 1 million people severely affected by the cyclone.

It has also not clearly said whether the relief goods will be exempted from customs charges and has demanded that foreign relief workers be escorted in Myanmar.

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