Differences between disasters in Haiti and Burma – The Irrawaddy


Quake survivors in Port-au-Prince are living in the open, in makeshift camps. (Simon Roughneen)

PORT-AU-PRINCE — Haiti President René Préval on Wednesday said that the country’s legislative elections would be postponed indefinitely due to the impact of the Jan. 12 earthquake.

“The electoral campaign should have opened tomorrow and for obvious reasons, that won’t be able to happen,” Préval said in an interview at his temporary office.

The change of plans stands in stark contrast to the Burmese junta, which didn’t let the devastation wrought by Cyclone Nargis in May 2008 get in the way of a nationwide constitutional referendum that proceeded as planned mere days later.

Haiti’s polls were scheduled for Feb. 28 and were seen as an important next step in stabilizing Haiti’s fragile democracy. Brazil-led UN peacekeepers have operated in Haiti since 2004, after politicized gang violence.

Préval has been criticized by many Haitians, particularly in the vocal and influential expat lobby based in the US, for his apparent reticence after the earthquake. A New America Media/Bendixen & Amandi poll surveyed Haitians living in South Florida and across the country and found 63 percent disapprove of how Préval’s government has responded to the natural disaster.

With government buildings destroyed, the government has been forced to meet at a police station and under a nearby tent.

Préval says he did not want to be seen to be milking the disaster for public relations benefits. He said that as he toured Port-au-Prince the night of the earthquake and the next day, “A lot of people would have chosen to go and be filmed touring hospitals, to talk to the injured. . . . I chose to get to work and try to find help to deal with the catastrophe.”

Already dependent on foreign aid for around 60-70 percent of the national budget, Haiti’s reliance on aid will increase in coming months and years, with 10-year rebuilding plans costing billions of dollars being discussed. Haitian expats remit an estimated US $1.5-1.8 billion per annum, far exceeding the amount of aid and keeping Haitian families afloat amid nationwide poverty.

Haiti’s Electoral Council offices collapsed in the recent earthquake, while UN staff assigned to work with the commission were killed. The president added: “For human and technical reasons, it is obvious that the electoral process won’t be able to proceed as we had planned. Now we have to discuss with the various parties what will happen, what will be the next plan.”

Just as Haiti is the poorest country in the western hemisphere, Burma is one of the poorest in Asia— though Burma has a wealth of natural resources that Haiti cannot match.

Regardless, the junta put severe limits on international assistance getting to the disaster area. In the days after that disaster, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called for the referendum to be postponed in full to concentrate on the “national tragedy.”

The junta was criticized for diverting critical resources from survivors toward the referendum, including evicting refugees from shelters so they could be used as polling stations.

“Instead of putting all resources toward saving the lives of the victims, the military is concentrating on legalizing military rule in Burma forever through a sham constitutional referendum,” said a joint statement from the All Burma Monks Alliance, the 88 Generation Students and the All Burma Federation of Student Unions released after the Nargis disaster.

The referendum and the results—a 93 percent vote in favor of the controversial new constitution—were widely dismissed as rigged and massive fraud and intimidation was reported by Burmese who managed to get information out of the country.

The poll was part of the junta’s self-styled democracy “road map,” which includes elections to be held sometime this year. Last week a senior junta official said that Aung San Suu Kyi would remain under house arrest until November, likely to be after the election takes place.

However, no electoral law or timetable has been decided upon. The 2008 Constitution and the elections together are expected to put a civilian veneer upon continued military rule in Burma, leaving the main opposition parties undecided on whether or not to participate in the elections.

Some of the opposition have called for the 2008 Constitution to be reviewed before talks on national reconciliation can go any further.

While the Burmese junta seeks to retain power, irrespective of the human cost, the much-maligned Haitian president says he will not seek to extend his term in office beyond Feb. 11, 2011, the scheduled end of his term

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