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(New York) - China, India, Thailand and other members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) should work to convince Burma’s government to lift restrictions on international assistance so aid can reach survivors of Cyclone Nargis, Human Rights Watch said today.

“By blocking international relief efforts, the Burmese government is showing utter contempt for millions of its own people,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “China and Burma’s other friends should lead international efforts, including at the UN Security Council, to persuade or compel Burma to accept the international aid that cyclone survivors so badly need.”

Human Rights Watch called on the Burmese government to open cyclone-affected areas to a major international relief effort by immediately granting visas to aid workers; allowing United Nations and international humanitarian agencies to distribute aid directly to those in need; and allowing countries with assets nearby to deliver aid by air and sea to survivors who cannot otherwise be reached quickly. Many affected communities are only accessible by air and sea, which makes assistance by countries that are equipped to deal with humanitarian disasters essential to prevent further death and suffering.

All nations with the capacity to provide assistance by air and by sea, including the United States, France, the United Kingdom, India, China, and members of ASEAN, should immediately deploy military and civilian response units – preferably jointly – as close as possible to Burma so that they are ready to provide relief as soon as permission is granted. Clean water, protein biscuits and other staple foods, and medical care should be pre-positioned in the region for immediate delivery.

“The world is watching to see if China does the right thing for Burma’s cyclone victims,” said Adams. “China should do everything in its power to get sufficient aid into Burma or it will share responsibility for the deaths of tens of thousands of people.”

Human Rights Watch welcomed the recent strong statements urging the Burmese government to reverse course by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, officials of the World Food Programme, and key governments. All have made it clear that the Burmese government does not have the capacity to address a natural disaster of this scale on its own. As John Holmes, head of the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), said to the Security Council on May 9, 2008: “The sooner humanitarians are allowed in, and the less procedural and other obstacles we encounter, the more lives we can help save. The speed with which we deliver assistance to those in need is becoming more and more critical and the danger of the outbreak of epidemics rises by the hour.”

However, thus far these entreaties have failed to persuade the Burmese government to change course.

“The Burmese military is neither willing nor able to get aid to those most in need,” said Adams. “Only a massive coordinated international relief effort can spare the Burmese people further suffering.”

Human Rights Watch urged the US, the UK, France, and other governments to urgently press China, India, and ASEAN – publicly and privately – to use their considerable influence and leverage with the Burmese government to allow aid and humanitarian workers access.

Human Rights Watch also called on ASEAN to demand that Burma respond to the cyclone as Indonesia did to the December 2004 tsunami, when after initial hesitation it opened the region to needed international aid and aid workers. Because of its terrible human rights record and continued repression of political opposition, Burma has long been a controversial member of ASEAN. Its military government has consistently broken promises to act in good faith to work with the political opposition on a genuine transition to civilian government. ASEAN issued a strong statement deploring the actions of the Burmese junta after the violent September 2007 crackdown on mass protests, but then took no further action.

“Burma’s inhuman response to the cyclone is yet another embarrassment for ASEAN,” said Adams. “If Burma doesn’t reverse course on this epic tragedy, ASEAN should formally consider expelling Burma from the regional club.”

Under international law, the million or so people thought to have been made homeless by the cyclone are considered internally displaced. The UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement provide that a state should not arbitrarily withhold permission for international humanitarian organizations and other appropriate actors to provide aid, “particularly when authorities concerned are unable or unwilling to provide the required humanitarian assistance.” The principles further state that, “All authorities concerned shall grant and facilitate the free passage of humanitarian assistance and grant persons engaged in the provision of such assistance rapid and unimpeded access to the internally displaced.”

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