Friday, May 1, 2009

Junta’s role makes life more difficult for Nargis survivors

by Solomon: Mungpi

New Delhi (Mizzima) - Come May 2, the Burmese people will recall the worst disaster ever to hit the country, in modern times. Cyclone Nargis, left at least 140,000 dead or missing, and devastated the lives of more than 2.4 million people.

A year later, while efforts to rebuild the lives of the affected people continue, victims and relief workers are of the opinion that the government’s absurd policies and their role in reconstruction work, have only added to the miseries of the victims.

In the immediate aftermath of the Cyclone, Burma’s military rulers blatantly rejected the entry of relief materials and international humanitarian aid to help the victims, as they were busy preparing for a Referendum to approve their Constitution, which was drafted unilaterally, without the participation of other political stake holders.

Till date, even after the lapse of a year, victims in the Cyclone affected areas have said that their needs continue to be grave with shortage of food, lack of shelter, scarcity of drinking water, and inadequate support for their livelihood, including education and health.

An aid worker, who worked with an aid agency in the delta said, “If the government had not imposed restrictions on aid groups then the situation might have improved a lot more and survivors would have a better chance of getting support.”

The Rangoon-based aid worker, who requested anonymity for fear of reprisal, said aid distributions had largely been limited by the government’s imposition of restrictions. The government only allowed limited aid workers to go into the delta and the junta kept track of all agencies.

“Though there are several agencies, which have their offices in towns, such as Bogale, Laputta and other bigger towns in the Irrawaddy, there are still several villages in the southern area of the delta, which have not got aid,” a Rangoon-based journalist, who recently visited villages in southern Laputta Township, which is close to the Bay of Bengal, said.

David Scott Mathieson, Burma Researcher of the Human Rights Watch (HRW), said, the junta, referring to it by its official name – the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) – had been systematically controlling the flow of aid and limiting agencies from independently operating, which resulted in the slow recovery of the victims.

“The action of the SPDC in the first two weeks, after the cyclone was absolutely disgraceful,” Mathieson said.

However, later, though the government did allow aid to come in, there were still some impediments in terms of road blocks and control of aid to the delta, he added.

Saga of aid blocking by junta

In the initial few weeks after the Cyclone, Burma’s military government refused to allow international aid agencies to come in to help cyclone victims. However, with the intervention by United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, Burma’s military chief Snr. Gen Than Shwe agreed to allow aid to come in.

The very first international aid arrived on May 8, after nearly a week of the cyclone hitting Burma. The ruling junta allowed only two UN agencies - World Food Programme (WFP) and the International Federation of Red Cross (IFRC) to land their relief shipments.

“The regime, one week after the cyclone, had held the constitutional referendum. This was disgraceful and they also stopped some aid from getting in,” Mathieson added.

Burma’s military rulers also initially refused to give visas to a number of international relief workers, but with the intervention of Ban Ki-moon, who visited Burma on May 22, and met Burma’s military chief Senior General Than Shwe, the junta agreed to allow aid groups to come in.

On July 8, 2008, the junta said they had granted more than 1,500 visas for foreign aid workers, but the UN Office of the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) in Bangkok, told Mizzima on July 7, that the Burmese embassy in Bangkok had granted 317 UN staffs visas, but 13 requests remained pending.

However, one year on, international relief workers are still finding it difficult to get visas, the relief worker said. Getting permission to work in the Irrawaddy Delta is one of the biggest challenges with the government allowing only a limited period of time to foreign aid workers to be based in the delta.

“Before the cyclone there had already been enough problems of getting visas by the international humanitarian workers, but after the disaster it became worse,” said the relief worker.

“There are still restrictions on visas for international relief workers and the junta continues restricting access to the delta especially for foreign aid workers,” he said.

Imprisonment of aid workers

Besides restricting international aid workers to have free access to the cyclone-hit areas, Burma’s military government also conducted a crackdown on domestic aid workers and volunteers, who rushed to the delta in the aftermath of the disaster, to help victims.

Zarganar a.k.a Thura, a well-known comedian and film director, who had raised funds and helped cyclone victims, was arrested in June 2008 and was sentenced to 59 years, under charges of the Video and Electronic Law. But, his sentence was later commuted to 35 years of prison term.

On 10 April 2009, authorities sentenced another six volunteers to prison terms. Aung Thant Zin Oo, Phyo Phyo Aung and Shein Yarza Tun were sentenced to four years each, while Nay Win, Aung Kyaw San and Phone Pyih Kywe were sentenced to two years.

Similarly, Ein Khaing Oo, a 24 year old journalist from the “Ecovision Journal”, along with her friend Kyaw Kyaw Than were also sentenced to two years in November 2008, for reporting on Nargis survivors and approaching the Rangoon- based international NGOs.

“What is completely unacceptable and what is more horrible is the arrest of more than 20 community aid workers, including Zarganar, journalist Ein Khaing Oo and many others,” Mathieson said.

According to the Thailand-based Assistant Association for Political Prisoners in Burma (AAPPB), at least 21 relief workers, who were helping cyclone victims, have been arrested and sentenced to long prison terms.

Tate Naing, Secretary of the AAPPB said, some of the volunteers arrested and sentenced by the junta were burying corpses, which were piling up in the Irrawaddy delta.

“Their punishment is completely unacceptable. Their ‘crimes’ were to help people and tell the truth about the situation,” Tate Naing said in a statement released on Friday.

Aid control

The relief worker said, though there had been a significant amount of aid reaching the delta, he had witnessed that aid had decline after a year.

He said, it might be due to the agencies shifting focus on reconstruction works. He also said it could be partly because of the government’s restrictions.

A rice merchant from Pyapone Township said, while agencies were seen in the town and working in the areas, he did not see much support from the government.

He said, in the aftermath of the cyclone in Pyapone, the Burmese Army’s Brigade No. 66, had control over relief aid for about 5 months and every aid worker and agency were required to take permission in order to carry out relief work in the township.

But now, he said, the controls had shifted to the Ministry of Hotels and Tourism, which issued permits to enter the region.

Victims’ plight

Although in some cases farmers received material support to re-start cultivation, the inadequate support and favoritism indulged in by the government hardened the situation with farmers unable to work.

They gave around 6 power tillers for one village and only the people who were close to the authorities got it,” the rice merchant said.

A salt businessman from Laputta Township told Mizzima on Thursday that though he had received a loan from the government to re-start his business, he was now worried of how he would repay the debt.

“We got Kyat 300,000 [USD 300] for an acre of salt farm as a loan from the government, but it will be difficult to return because we could not do well this year,” he said.

Aid Misappropriation

Beside keeping tight control over the flow of aid and denying access to relief workers into the delta, Burma’s military government has also reportedly been misappropriating relief materials meant for victims of the cyclone.

In October 2008, Burma’s authorities arrested Kyaw Soe, a clerk at the Pyapone Township Peace and Development Council (TPDC) and Hla Htay for misappropriating rice donated to the cyclone victims.

Both of them were reportedly detained in Pyapone jail, but local residents said so far no charges had been filed against them.

Sources said, Kyaw Soe sold about 1,000 bags of rice in Rangoon, which were donated by Saudi Arabia and was arrested on October 2008, by the Bureau of Special Investigations (BSI).

“The BSI has sent the investigation results to Naypyitaw, but the case is not progressing,” the rice merchant, who closely follows the case, told Mizzima.

He said, Kyaw Soe was the unlucky one, as several other local officials were also involved in re-selling aid materials in the market. But following the arrests of the two people, reports of misappropriating aid have subsided.

“Many others were also re-selling aid materials, but they were in small quantities such as 5 to 10 bags of rice. So, there was not much evidence but Kyaw Soe’s case was huge and was well-known,” he said.

On May 14, local residents said they saw biscuits of foreign make, dried meat, instant noodles, tarpaulins and plastic sheets on sale in Nyaungpinlay market, Mingalar market, Bogale market, Theingyi market and other markets in Rangoon.

The Mizzima correspondent in Rangoon has seen tissue packets with Red Cross labels in a store in Mingalar market. Residents of Rangoon also saw army trucks from the Navy supplies Depot, in Mingaladon, Syriam and Laputta bringing the relief materials to the markets.

“We will call on the project [relief aid] to effectively monitor to make sure the SPDC is not profiting from that,” Mathieson said.

Needs still large

Even as relief and reconstruction efforts are ongoing, and a significant amount of aid has reached victims, the UN said it was still crucial for the international community to continue the support.

UN resident and humanitarian coordinator in Rangoon, Bishow Parajuli told Mizzima that so far only USD 315 million or 66 per cent of the first revised appeal of USD 477 had been received.

Though much has been accomplished, there are vital needs in various sectors, such as Health, Education, Agriculture, Water and Sanitation, Parajuli said.

Recent Posts from Burma Wants Freedom and Democracy

Recent posts from WHO is WHO in Burma


The Nuke Light of Myanmar Fan Box
The Nuke Light of Myanmar on Facebook
Promote your Page too