Monday, May 19, 2008

Cannes Film Festival: Burmese cyclone relief and politics

The aftermath of Cyclone Nargis in Burma is entering its third week, with the world community continuing to come to grips with the devastation. The cyclone made landfall in the Irawaddy Delta on May 2.

Aid organizations estimate that at least 120,000 people have died in the disaster, while the government is confirming at least 78,000 dead and 56,000 missing. As many as 2.5 million people are at risk, the UN has said. Entire towns have been wiped out. Crops won't be planted. The relief mission needs to be a massive effort to provide immediate food, shelter and medical assistance to survivors. And in the long term, there will need to be rebuilding and rehabilitation.

But hardly anything is being done. Run by a paranoid, superstitious and self-serving military dictatorship, offers of foreign manpower and expertise for the stricken Irrawaddy Delta have been refused. Supplies have trickled in by air, but workers wanting to get into the country are left fuming in Bangkok. Only acknowledging the cyclone disaster with some unbelievable propaganda, the government went ahead with a constitutional referendum, in which everyone was being pressured to vote "yes", thus ensuring the junta will stay in power, despite assurances it is part of the "road map to democracy".

Countries are welcome to send cash and supplies, but foreign aid workers are caught up in a web of red tape. Burma (aka Myanmar) doesn't need anyone's help, the junta has said. It was only just yesterday that a team of 30 Thai medical workers was allowed in to Burma.

While people are suffering, there are calls to invade Burma in order to provide relief. French, British and American naval vessels are standing offshore in the Bay of Bengal, ready to dispatch helicopters and boats for aid drops and to transport medical professional. Don Mueang Airport in Bangkok has been designated a staging area for airborne relief flights by the World Food Program.

Not surprising is that the Cannes Film Festival has become a platform for celebrities to seize on Burma as their new cause.

In Paris on Sunday, British singer-actress Jane Birkin said she and her daughter Charlotte Gainsbourg would lead a protest rally in Cannes on Monday.

Cannes Film Festival jury president Sean Penn, outspoken as ever, had this to say:

"When these things happen, all these governments, and I include mine, their control over people ... their keeping people from getting help when they need it, they've got to be pushed out of the way by people."

Additionally, Penn, along with U2 lead singer Bono and documentarian Michael Moore persuaded the Cannes Film Festival organizers to hold a special screening of The Third Wave, a 2007 documentary about the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. Here is more about the film from Agence France-Presse via Google News:

[Penn] saw the film by Sydney-born Alison Thompson six months ago but said at the festival that given the disasters currently unfolding in China and Myanmar, the film was "even more important now."

"In lieu of the fact that governments don't seem to be able to help, this gives you an indication of how you can help yourself," he told the audience.

Shot in 2004 in Sri Lanka in the wake of the tsunami that left some 170,000 people dead across Asia, The Third Wave recounts how Thompson and her partner Oscar Gubernati took off from New York with little more than a handful of dollars to try to help the victims, only days after the disaster.

Picking up a couple of extra pairs of hands, they took off for the coast with a van of supplies and stopped in the village of Peraliya, where 2,500 people had died, including hundreds travelling on a smashed train.

Thompson, who had basic first aid training, took care of the wounded as the team helped stunned survivors to begin clearing the chaos. "People were lethargic to clean up, doing a little bit kept people motivated," one of them said.

Week by week they dug toilets, collected corpses, played with children, built shelters, found food, got the school going, and tried to restore morale.

By the third week, the volunteers numbered 10 as other westerners signed on. By week seven they were 40, including voluntary doctors.

The group was never financed, getting help from time to time from organised aid associations, who donated medicine or food, or from passers-by who left what cash they could.

"It was giving hope and reintroducing normalcy", said one volunteer in the film.

By the time the group left after several months, 520 homes had been rebuilt with no organised outside financial help.

Penn saw the film on the behest of Czech model Petra Nemcova, who was in Thailand on holidays when the tsunami struck and survived by clinging to a tree as her fiance was swept to his death.

Funds raised by the film would go to Sri Lanka, Nemcova said.

Thompson, who was present at the screening, said she was hoping to go to Myanmar to help. "If anyone wants to come, you can come and see me."

Donate to Cyclone Nargis relief:

These are just a few, and there are many more. Rule of Lords has more listings of relief organizations.

See also:

More coverage:

(Photo from Labutta, Ayeyarwady Division via International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies)

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