Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Can Burmese junta learn from Nargis !

Nava Thakuria (Narinjara): It is one year now, since the devastating tropical cyclone that struck Burma (officially known as Myanmar). The deadly cyclone hit the Burmese land in the first week of May last year and left a trail of devastation in the entire Irrawaddy and Rangoon (Yangon) divisions of the country.

Originated from the Bay of Bengal, Nargis also partially destroyed the areas under the Bago, Mon and Kayin region. With human casualties, the cyclone added to the damage of social infrastructures, killing of thousands of livestock and also causing flood, wiping out paddy fields, which were made ready for the country’s primary crops rice.

Nargis hit the country on the night of May 2 and continued its devastation till the next morning. Over 80,000 Sq Km areas with high population density were under the slam of the cyclone that claimed nearly 140,000 people. Another few hundred thousand people went on missing.

The United Nations estimated that Nargis affected 2.4 million people and rendered thousands families homeless. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization estimated the loss of nearly 300,000 water buffalo and cows, 7,500 goats, 65,000 pigs, 1.5 million chicken and ducks. It also destroyed the fish ponds, hatcheries and shrimp farms in the localities.

Moreover, nearly 10,00,000 acres of farmland in Irrawaddy and 3,00,000 acres in Rangoon division were destroyed. Similarly Nargis damaged over 800 000 houses, including schools and hospitals.

Of course, the military government reported the final death toll as only 84,537 only. The government-run daily newspaper ‘The New Light of Myanmar’, revealed that the storm left 53,836 missing and 19,359 people injured. Burma has neither independent media nor easy internet access through out the country.

In fact, Nargis helped exposing the State Peace and DevelopmentCouncil, which rules Burma, to the world communities. The military junta not only wanted to hide the statistics of casualty, but also prevented initially the international aid workers to enter the country. International agencies and local donors were stopped from entering the affected areas and also delivering aid, which was meant for hundreds of thousands of people in jeopardy.

The military regime at its new capital Naypyidaw, which is north of Rangoon, had an apprehension that the massive flow of foreign aid workers to their country might create trouble for them in the coming days. Even the SPDC chief senior general Than Shwe got time to visit those victims only after international criticism came out in a bigger way.

The military rulers were softened only after the personal visit of the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in the middle of May. Slowly the communication between Naypyidaw and the international agencies got improved. Visas and travel permits were made little easier and faster for the foreign aid workers.

India, which maintains strategic relationship with Burma, was one of early supplier of aid to the cyclone victims. New Delhi launched Operation Sahayata to deliver more than 175 tonnes of relief materials including food supplies, tents and medicines. Moreover, the Indian government successfully pursued with the junta to accept the international aid. Later a team of 50 medical personnel was also sent by India to the Irrawaddy delta.

After 12 months of the disaster, the situation remained almost same. Now there are no refuges in the camps, as the military dismantled those nearly six months back. But the affected people are still living with acute shortage of pure drinking water and food, not to speak of proper shelter. More over most of the victims, who survived Nargis, are facing unending trauma.

“The humanitarian situation in Burma remains desperate even a year after Nargis,” said a young Burmese writer Zoya Phan. The author of ‘Little Daughter’, while talking to the London based Sky News, revealed that the poor Burmese were still struggling to rebuild their lives. Zoya, 28, also added, “Those who survived had their attempts to recover hindered by the country's military rulers, who obstructed the access of vital aid supplies in the aftermath of the cyclone.”

Tyaza Thuria, a Burmese exile living in Europe, claimed that nearly two million people, mostly farmers and their families, were still living in horrible situations. Talking to this writer, Tyaza expressed his anger that the military regime had done nothing for the rehabilitation for the cyclone victims.

“They are only interested in retaining the political power. So they went ahead with their plans for referendum (only to forcefully approve the pro-military constitution) and finally to install a puppet civilian regime after the 2010 polls,” he asserted.

Meanwhile, the UN has highlighted urgent needs for the cyclone affected people. Addressing a donor meeting in Rangoon during the first week of April, Bishow Parajuli, the UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator, emphasized that there was still an imminent need for sustainable shelter and agricultural support ahead of the monsoon season.

“Whilst steadily recovering from cyclone Nargis affected areas remains high on the agenda, the UN also addresses needs for funding to other parts of the country, where immense humanitarian and development challenges exists," Parajuli added.

Organized by the UN, the meting was attended by around 70 participants, including the Heads of Diplomatic missions, UN Agenciesand National and International Non-Governmental Organizations. Speaking to this writer from Rangoon, Astrid Sehl, the communication officer of United Nations in Myanmar, admitted that the level of humanitarian assistance that currently being provided in Burma was much lower than the actual needs of the people. She also revealed that there were no cyclone affected people living in the camps at his moment, as those were dismantled last year.

The donors have so far reportedly contributed $US 310 million. The UN, the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) and the Burmese government have already finalized a recovery plan with the budget of another $US 691 million for restoring livelihood and housing through grants and microfinance. It is understood that the initiative might take three more years.

The cyclone, as it hit Burma in the beginning of the harvesting season, made significant impact to the rice production. Primarily because of salinity in the water, poor quality seeds, lack of draught animals and also agricultural labours, production suffered.

A recent report of the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Food Programme revealed that at least 10 % people (out of 50 million) in Burma were forced to live below the food poverty line. The report on the crop and food security assessment mission to Burma disclosed that over five million people were finding it difficult to access to nutritious food in Burma after the cyclone Nargis ravaged the delta region last year.

But amidst all negative aspects, there are some positive outcomes that emerged out from the post-Nargis humanitarian activities. The natural disaster had finally opened up the country to the international communities to some extent. The situation compelled the junta to join hands with the ASEAN and the UN. The international exposure to the alienated Burmese, who have been living under military rule for over four decades, seems to play the role of a catalyst for a change in the coming days.

The ASEAN secretary general Surin Pitsuwan expressed optimism that the Burmese government and the people have gained a higher degree of confidence after the Nargis relief and rehabilitation exercise, as they had the opportunity to work with the international community and donors.

In fact, Pitsuwan, who served Thailand as a Foreign Minister yearsback, is credited to break the ice in initiating for a Tripartite Core Group comprising the representatives from the ASEAN, the UN and the Burmese government. The forum was officially declared on May 31 last to pave way for continuing the mission to support the Nargis victims. Win Naing (name changed), a pro-democracy activist said that though the aid was one time effort with no political influences, it should play an important role in the changing political and diplomatic equation.

Speaking to this writer from an Indo-Burma border area, Win Naing added, “We are aware of that only aid to the Nargis survivors will not bring the change we are talking about; neither it would herald democracy for us. But the new found link between the Burmese and the world communities is expected to enhance the confidence of those poverty stricken people of our country. It has the potential to influence the military rulers in the long run for improving the human rights record in Burma.’

The author is a Guwahati (Northeast India) based independent journalist whose focus area remains the socio-political developments taking place in Northeast as well as its neighbouring Nepal, Bhutan, Tibet, Burma and Bangladesh.

He may be contacted at

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