The Politics of Humanitarian Aid

President Bush was justifiably upset. A cyclone four days earlier had destroyed a large portion of Myanmar, and the country’s military junta was still refusing humanitarian aid. “Let the United States come to help you, help the people,” Bush pleaded with the junta. “We’re prepared to move U.S. Navy assets to help find those who’ve lost their lives, to help find the missing, to help stabilize the situation,” said the President, “but in order to do so, the military junta must allow our disaster assessment teams into the country.”

With more than 20,000 dead, possibly 40,000 missing, and close to one million homeless, the junta made it clear that it, not the international community, would provide whatever humanitarian aid was necessary.

A week before the cyclone hit, President Bush extended sanctions against Myanmar by another year because of what he called that junta’s “large-scale repression of the democratic opposition.” Paranoid about anything that could threaten its power, the junta was frightened that the United States would use the cyclone as a reason to invade the country.

The junta’s response the first week of May was little different than the international concern almost three years earlier. It wasn’t the destruction of villages and the rice farming industry, but the destruction of cities and the shrimp industry. It wasn’t a cyclone named Nargis, but a hurricane named Katrina.

It’s been well documented that the Bush-Cheney Administration, with its head in Iraq, wasn’t prepared for a natural disaster. Like the leaders in Myanmar, the Bush-Cheney Administration was slow to inform the people, and slow to act during the crisis. Less known is that President Bush refused innumerable offers of assistance to the people of the Gulf Coast.

More than 20 countries — including Israel, Mexico, China, England, and the Dominican Republic — quickly offered humanitarian and financial assistance. President Bush’s first response was to tell the audience of ABC-TV’s Good Morning, America:

“I’m not expecting much from foreign nations because we hadn’t asked for it. I do expect a lot of sympathy and perhaps some will send cash dollars. But this country’s going to rise up and take care of it. . . . You know, we would love help, but we’re going to take care of our own business as well, and there’s no doubt in my mind we’ll succeed.”

Cuba, which has one of the best health care and disaster response systems in the world, offered substantial medical supplies and 1,600 physicians, most of them specialists. Rejected.

Venezuela offered $1 million, in addition to oil and humanitarian supplies. Rejected.

Russia offered medical supplies, evacuation equipment, a water cleansing system, a rescue helicopter, and 60 persons specially trained in search and rescue operations. Rejected.

Germany sent a military plane carrying 15 tons of emergency provisions. The United States denied it landing rights.

Not only did the federal government reject humanitarian offers from other countries, it either rejected or ignored offers by the American people and its own governmental agencies.

Before the storm hit, Amtrak offered trains to evacuate New Orleans. Ignored.

The Forest Service, shortly after Katrina came ashore, offered water-tanker aircraft to fight the fires. Ignored.

The Coast Guard, which would fly more than 20,000 rescue operations, offered 1,000 gallons of diesel fuel to Jefferson Parrish. The federal government refused to allow delivery.

The captain of an amphibious assault ship off the Gulf Coast offered to send her sailors onto land to help the people, have her helicopters assist in rescue operations, provide as much as 100,000 gallons of drinkable water a day, and open her ship’s operating rooms to provide medical assistance and 600 beds for the relief effort. The federal government ignored and then delayed her offer.

During the first week of the disaster, the federal government had ordered the Red Cross and Salvation Army not to go into the New Orleans disaster zone, falsely citing a lack of adequate security. Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico offered 400 National Guard soldiers the day the hurricane hit; however, they weren’t sent for four more days because of what Richardson called “federal paperwork” that the Pentagon insisted had to first be completed.

Chicago offered firefighters, police, health workers, sanitation workers, a mobile health clinic, trucks, boats, and cars. Rejected.

The Florida Airboat Association offered to send in 300 fully equipped boats with trained pilots. Rejected.

About 75 companies volunteered to use their own corporate aircraft to ferry supplies into smaller local and regional airports. When the federal government ignored the offer, the companies flew in more than 130,000 pounds of food and critical supplies, making determinations without federal assistance or appreciation of where the needs were the greatest.

Hundreds of companies tried to provide several million gallons of drinking water and ice for the evacuees. The federal government either blocked their delivery or routed them on a circuitous path throughout the South, and never allowed them to unload their cargoes. Members of the International Bottled Water Association did provide 10 million bottles of fresh water for evacuees, but received no assistance from the federal government, which refused to return several phone calls.

A national corporation offered free telecommunications equipment but the federal government rejected it, according to Ern Blackwelder of the Business Executives for National Security. Blackwelder told the Atlanta Journal–Constitution that the government later contracted with the same company and paid for equipment that had previously been offered at no charge.

About a week after Katrina hit, the U.S. began accepting humanitarian aid, but only from countries it determined were its allies.

Make no mistake about it, the leaders of Myanmar are dictators who trample human rights, have led their nation into an extended economic crisis, and are interested only in keeping their own power. Almost a month after Nargis hit the Irrawaddy Delta, the junta is now finally allowing foreign aid, but not from the United States.

But also make no mistake about this. The United States under its current administration will continue to refuse humanitarian aid and personnel from Cuba, Venezuela, and any other country that doesn’t agree with the Bush-Cheney politics.

Walter Brasch, during a 40-year work career in mass communications, has been a member of several unions, in both the private and public sectors. He is a syndicated newspaper columnist and the author of 16 books, including With Just Cause: Unionization of the American Journalist, Before the First Snow: Stories from the Revolution, and his latest Fracking Pennsylvania. He can be contacted at: Read other articles by Walter, or visit Walter's website.

4 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Lloyd Rowsey said on June 2nd, 2008 at 12:26pm #

    Thank you, Walter Brasch, for pointing out the blatant two-faced behavior of Bushco’s responses to the cyclone in Myanmar, Burma, on the one hand and to Hurricane Katrina on the other. The last two paragraphs couldn’t put it better:

    “Make no mistake about it, the leaders of Myanmar are dictators who trample human rights, have led their nation into an extended economic crisis, and are interested only in keeping their own power. Almost a month after Nargis hit the Irrawaddy Delta, the junta is now finally allowing foreign aid, but not from the United States.

    But also make no mistake about this. The United States under its current administration will continue to refuse humanitarian aid and personnel from Cuba, Venezuela, and any other country that doesn’t agree with the Bush-Cheney politics.”


    For a personal account of Myanmar, readers may be interested in Naomi Klein’s piece datelined May 16, and titled “Regime-Quake in Burma and China.”

    It’s at

    After discussing the earthquake in Sichuan and how it has shaken loose “grave political weaknesses within” China, Klein turns to Burma:

    “None of this compares with the rage boiling over in Burma, where cyclone survivors have badly beaten at least one local official, furious at his failure to distribute aid. There have been dozens of reports of the Burmese junta taking credit for supplies sent by foreign countries. It turns out that they have been taking more than credit–in some cases they have been taking the aid. According to a report in Asia Times, the regime has been hijacking food shipments and distributing them among its 400,000 soldiers. The reason speaks to the threat the disaster poses to the very existence of the regime. The generals, it seems, are “haunted by an almost pathological fear of a split inside their own ranks…if soldiers are not given priority in aid distribution and are unable to feed themselves, the possibility of mutiny rises.” Mark Farmaner, director of Burma Campaign UK, confirms that before the cyclone, the military was already coping with a wave of desertions.

    This relatively small-scale theft of food is fortifying the junta for its much larger heist–the one taking place via the constitutional referendum the generals have insisted on holding, come hell and high water. Enticed by high commodity prices, Burma’s generals have been gorging off the country’s natural abundance, stripping it of gems, timber, rice and oil. As profitable as this arrangement is, junta leader Gen. Than Shwe knows he cannot resist the calls for democracy indefinitely.

    Taking a page out of the playbook of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, the generals have drafted a Constitution that allows for elections but guarantees that no future government will ever have the power to prosecute them for their crimes or take back their ill-gotten wealth. As Farmaner puts it, after elections the junta leaders ‘are going to be wearing suits instead of boots.’ The cyclone, meanwhile, has presented them with one last, vast business opportunity: by blocking aid from reaching the highly fertile Irrawaddy delta, hundreds of thousands of mostly ethnic Karen rice farmers are being sentenced to death. According to Farmaner, ‘that land can be handed over to the generals’ business cronies’ (shades of the beachfront land grabs in Sri Lanka and Thailand after the Asian tsunami). This isn’t incompetence, or even madness. It’s laissez-faire ethnic cleansing….”

  2. Leyla said on June 3rd, 2008 at 7:48pm #

    Hello Walter, I love this article. I hope you won’t mind me quoting you?

  3. walt brasch said on June 4th, 2008 at 3:16am #

    Thank you for the nice comment. Us writers love feedback–actually, we’re all egotists. And, Leyla, please quote away. And forward anything you like.

  4. Leyla said on June 4th, 2008 at 7:44pm #

    Thank you Walt. I must say I enjoy most of the writings in this website and find them invaluable for expanding my knowledge, even if I don’t agree with all of them. I have found not only all the writers but also the people who comment on the articles to be articulate and intelligent. Thank you to all the writers and the people who respond in this website.