Sunday, May 3, 2009

A Nation in Need

The Irrawaddy News

A year ago, when deadly Cyclone Nargis slammed into Burma, the country was ill-prepared. The official death toll was at least 140,000, but some observers now say that it was even higher. We may never know the true figure, however, because the reclusive regime that at first refused to allow aid to flow freely into the cyclone-affected Irrawaddy delta has no desire for a full account of the consequences of their incompetence and callousness.

The junta eventually gave a green light to something approaching a full-scale relief effort, but it continued to assert its control in a heavy-handed manner. Military authorities hampered the delivery of aid to the delta, and local relief workers faced harassment and arrest if they failed to play by the regime’s rules. Traumatized villagers whose homes had been destroyed were told to leave temporary shelters and get back to work in their ruined fields. And foreign warships carrying aid materials were forced to withdraw because the repressive rulers in Naypyidaw feared not only an invasion, but also the very real danger that the presence of a force stronger than the Burmese military could inspire a massive uprising.

To add insult to injury, junta-controlled newspapers carried editorials reprimanding the international community for being tightfisted with its aid. They then claimed that Burma did not need help from the rest of the world, because people in the delta could easily survive on fish and frogs from nearby rivers.

The survivors of Cyclone Nargis have indeed been extremely resilient in the face of their tribulations. But it would be unspeakably cruel to use this as an excuse to deny them the assistance they so desperately need. They have lost family members, homes and livelihoods. The recovery process has been achingly slow, with recent data showing that some 500,000 people still have no permanent place to live, 200,000 have no access to fresh water and 350,000 are receiving food aid from the World Food Program.

Infrastructure—everything from schools, monasteries and churches to clinics, bridges and jetties—remains in ruins because there is not enough money to cover rebuilding costs.

The aid money is not forthcoming because of reports of extortion, misappropriation of aid and corruption in the initial stages of the relief effort and because of the regime’s horrific human rights record. The lack of accountability and transparency continues to plague pleas for more aid. According to a new recovery plan, the delta will need US $690 million in aid over the next three years, although aid groups say that it is unlikely they will be able to raise that much money.

One problem, say NGOs working inside Burma, is that some exiled Burmese groups have been lobbying against further funding for the delta. But the exiled groups deny that they are opposed to more aid; what they want, they say, are greater transparency and guarantees of accountability to ensure that aid is being used effectively and appropriately.

Foreign aid workers insist that the regime has not unduly interfered in their mission of helping the people of the delta to rebuild their lives. However, while we can readily acknowledge the value of the contributions that many NGOs inside Burma have made, it is impossible to ignore the fact that the junta remains intent on limiting their influence. International NGOs can and should continue to provide assistance; but they must also seek to expand the country’s exceedingly narrow humanitarian space, rather than merely working within the confines of what the junta considers acceptable.

Ultimately, it will be up to donor countries to decide how much they want to help the people of Burma, and how far they can trust the country’s rulers. We can only urge them to provide as much aid as possible for those in need, while advising an equal abundance of caution in dealing with the regime.

Finally, we should add that while the immediate humanitarian requirements of people in the delta are of the utmost importance, the debate over aid should not obscure the need to address Burma’s longstanding human rights issues and political impasse. After all, the regime’s disastrous response to Cyclone Nargis was not just an unfortunate mishap, but a manifestation of what happens when rulers are allowed to ride roughshod over the lives and rights of citizens for decades.

May 2, 2009

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