Thursday, April 30, 2009

Crossing the Great Divide

The Irrawaddy News

Last week, I was at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand (FCCT) to attend a panel discussion organized by the BBC Burmese Service to mark the one-year anniversary of Cyclone Nargis, Burma’s worst recorded natural disaster.

My first question to Tin Htar Swe, the head of the BBC Burmese Service in London, was why there were no Burmese NGO workers or monks on the panel. Both groups are widely recognized as key participants in the post-Nargis relief effort.

She replied that local aid workers and monks were initially invited to speak, but they all turned down the invitation when they learned that the discussion would be videotaped and aired.

After hearing this response, a Burmese colleague joked that it looked like Burma’s humanitarian workers were sharing the fate of the country’s political activists, who have long been forced to carry out most of their activities “underground.”

But two of the panelists—Chris Kaye, the World Food Program’s country director for Burma, and Dr Frank Smithius, the country representative for MSF (Holland)—disagreed with the suggestion that the Burmese regime was impeding relief efforts.

They said that aid could be delivered to the needy without interference from the junta. But they also emphasized that much more work needed to be done to improve the lives of cyclone survivors. The recovery process in the delta would take time and more assistance was needed, they said. No one disagreed with them.

The third panelist, Britain’s ambassador to Burma, Mark Canning, also had a message that few people could disagree with. He said that Burma remained one of the most repressive places on earth, and insisted that real political progress could only begin after the regime released all of the country’s political prisoners.

At the same time, however, he stressed that while searching for a solution to Burma’s political problems, the basic needs of the Burmese people could not be ignored.

But meeting these needs continues to be a serious challenge for all involved. Although more international NGOs have entered Burma since Cyclone Nargis and large numbers of ordinary Burmese have joined the relief effort, it remains unclear how far the regime will go in allowing a larger “humanitarian space” to open in the country.

While many observers outside the country remain skeptical about the international aid agencies’ claims of being able to work freely (“What else do you expect them to say?” asked one cynical senior journalist at the FCCT), the regime itself is as suspicious as ever of these outsiders.

According to official sources in Naypyidaw, top leaders have shown little interest in humanitarian relief efforts in the delta, but are paying close attention to what’s going on there, as they remain ever watchful of signs of anything that could undermine their grip on power.

Indeed, when the microphones were off, some aid workers admitted that the junta has often been less than helpful, confirming comments from some Burmese observers who attended the FCCT event, who said that the real situation in the delta was very different from the picture being painted by the international aid groups.

Some foreign NGO workers also expressed doubts about the three-year recovery project receiving the $700 million it is estimated to need—something that will hinge largely on their ability to convince foreign donors that the regime is not hindering their efforts.

Last week, Koos Richelle, the director general of the European Commission’s EuropeAid Cooperation Office, told reporters in Manila that Burma must open up to dialogue with donors if it wants to receive much-needed development assistance. He added, however, that there has been little progress in providing aid to Burma because the military regime refuses to discuss development programs. (JEG's: but they want our money... )

Although the regime has extended the mandate of the relief-coordinating body, the Tripartite Core Group—consisting of representatives of the UN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) and the junta—for another year, Naypyidaw appears to be reluctant to allow more foreign aid workers into the country.

This is a disappointment for aid workers who say that they have been able to collaborate effectively with officials committed to helping their fellow Burmese citizens through cooperation with international relief groups and UN agencies.

One panelist even said that his organization was able to work inside Burma without sacrificing any of its core principles. But a foreign aid worker with in-depth knowledge of Burma was dismissive of this claim. The only organization in Burma that has strictly adhered to its principles is the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), he said. Although the ICRC stopped its activities, including prison visits, in Burma after the regime imposed restrictions, it has maintained its office in Rangoon.

Meanwhile, some aid workers active inside Burma are countering such recriminations by arguing that advocacy groups and activists outside the country are attempting to paint an overly bleak picture of the difficulties of working with the junta.

Recently, 21 international NGOs involved in Nargis-related relief and recovery work slammed a joint report by the Center for Public Health and Human Rights at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and the Thailand-based Emergency Assistance Team (EAT) which was highly critical of the relief effort in the delta.

In a joint letter, the NGO group said that the report, titled “After the Storm: Voices from the Delta,” published on February 27, was “both inaccurate and does a disservice to the courageous and resilient survivors of Cyclone Nargis.”

The report focused on human rights violations in the wake of Cyclone Nargis.

The response letter said, “We found a number of shortcomings in the report, including its premise, methodology and most of its findings.”

Defending the relief effort, the letter said: “Dozens of international and local relief agencies along with foreign embassies are continually examining humanitarian and delivery from inside Burma. They are able to do so independently and first-hand.

“The international humanitarian assistance delivered to date has been life-saving and life sustaining for millions of cyclone survivors. It has reached them without significant interference,” the letter claimed.

The letter also claimed that misleading reports could undermine further aid to cyclone survivors.

Although others have also questioned the Johns Hopkins/EAT report’s methodology, most observers agree that it has succeeded in initiating a healthy debate. Some researchers who advocate increased aid defended the report, saying that it helps to raise awareness of the need for transparency and accountability in the distribution of aid and use of funds.

As the relief effort approaches the one-year mark, this would be a good time for the aid community inside and outside Burma to open a dialogue, instead of undermining the missions inside and along the border.

Burmese aid workers on both sides of this artificial divide have many shared concerns. One is that the fight over aid money could obscure more important issues and even intensify divisions between Burmese inside and outside of the country.

A year ago, there was unprecedented cooperation between Burmese living in exile and those still inside the country, as both struggled to find a way to come to the assistance of their fellow citizens. Now, however, many fear that a dispute among foreign aid groups could weaken their shared resolve, with consequences that can only add to the tragedy of Cyclone Nargis.

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