Monday, June 1, 2009

Distrust and Division in the Delta

A full year after Cyclone Nargis, evidence of its destructive force
can still be seen in many parts of the Irrawaddy delta. (Photo: AFP)

MAY — JUNE, 2009 - VOLUME 17 NO.3
The Irrawaddy News

One year after Cyclone Nargis, doubts about the Burmese regime’s role in the relief effort continue to slow the recovery of the Irrawaddy delta

ONE year on, the nightmare of Cyclone Nargis still haunts people living in Burma’s Irrawaddy delta region. Those who narrowly survived the storm have seen their lives changed permanently. Proud farmers and workers are now vulnerable refugees living in makeshift shelters—their land destroyed, their livelihoods stolen by a horrific storm.

The magnitude of the May 2-3 disaster—the worst in Burma’s recorded history—challenged the ability of the military regime to conduct and control a massive relief operation. Around 140,000 people were killed, while some two million others were directly affected. Many suffered injuries and few were spared the trauma of losing their homes or loved ones.

The international community responded with an outpouring of emergency aid for the affected areas. But once the recovery and reconstruction phase began, the country had to pay an enormous price for the junta’s initial rejection of aid and obstruction of efforts by relief agencies to reach the delta during the first weeks after the disaster.

The United Nations appealed to the international community to donate US $690.5 million for the Post-Nargis Recovery and Preparedness Plan (PONREPP), but has so far received far less, with the total in pledges amounting to around $100 million.

Why is the international community so reluctant to donate generously for the Nargis victims in Burma? Why do donors find it so hard to accept the assessments of international nongovernmental organizations (INGOs) working inside Burma, who insist that aid is being utilized effectively?

The problem appears to be that the junta has done little to earn the trust of the outside world, and continues to act as if it is up to other countries to demonstrate their sincerity by providing unconditional assistance.

“Myanmar [Burma] is one of the countries that wants to seclude itself from the outside world,” said Koos Richelle, the director general of the European Commission’s EuropeAid Cooperation Office during the Asia-Europe Development Conference held in Manila in April. “It’s not us punishing them; it’s them not opening up for what we consider to be normal contact.

“There is no possibility for us to start [development aid] because we are not a money machine throwing envelopes over the fence.”

Distrust of the junta

The greatest impediment to the flow of humanitarian aid into Burma is the junta’s policies and attitude towards foreign aid agencies working in the country.

It is evident that the junta tried to manipulate the international humanitarian assistance and created an element of competition between the INGOs, playing games of favoritism and giving concessions to those who pleased them.

In 2005, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) France left Burma due to the junta’s growing restrictions, while MSF Holland stayed in the country and has so far been able to carry out its programs. The Global Fund also withdrew from Burma the same year as MSF France, taking with it about $100 million in aid.

Perhaps the best example of the regime’s disdain for the work of INGOs was its treatment of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

Renowned throughout the world for its impartiality and apolitical objectives, the ICRC has managed to maintain health projects and treat the wounded in world wars, civil conflicts and humanitarian disasters since 1863.

In March 2007, the ICRC made the decision to close down some of its field offices and cease several major operations because it couldn’t navigate its way through the regime’s red tape and restrictions due to a complete lack of cooperation from the junta.

Just a few months later, the junta drastically hiked fuel prices, exacerbating the already deteriorating humanitarian situation and sparking the worst civil unrest in nearly two decades, culminating in massive Buddhist monk-led demonstrations nationwide.

Witnessing the people’s plight, 13 INGOs in the country issued a joint statement in October 2007 calling on the junta and the international community to work together to achieve three goals: strengthening public sector policies by increasing public expenditure in health, education and sustainable livelihoods; improving the operating environment for local and international humanitarian organizations; and significantly scaling up international humanitarian assistance to directly address the needs of the poor.

A year later, however, none of these objectives had been met, a fact that was made evident by a report issued by MSF Holland criticizing the regime for its failure to do its part to provide adequate access to anti-retroviral treatment (ART) to patients with HIV/AIDS.

“MSF can no longer continue to scale up ART provision, in the face of so little response by other actors,” said the report, titled “A Preventable Fate: The Failure of ART Scale-up in Myanmar,” released in November 2008.

“Therefore, it has had to make the painful decision to restrict the number of new patients it can treat… With growing revenue from oil and gas exports, the government must invest more in its ailing health system and specifically HIV/AIDS care and treatment,” the report stated.

The report, released nearly half a year after Cyclone Nargis, demonstrates the military regime’s lack of commitment to cooperation with the INGOs in their efforts to meet the basic needs of Burma’s people.

This is the kind of report that international donors carefully scrutinize for indications that the junta is a reliable partner in multimillion-dollar aid projects. Generally, however, they find nothing to suggest that the country’s rulers share their concerns for the well-being of ordinary Burmese citizens.

Distrust weakens relief and breeds division

Cyclone Nargis abruptly changed Burma’s humanitarian landscape, with the number of INGOs operating in the Irrawaddy delta doubling to more than 100 and numerous field offices opening around the region since last May.

The scope and depth of the relief operation is unprecedented, requiring the creation of a networking mechanism among the INGOs to address disaster-related issues. No such mechanism had ever existed before in Burma.

Save the Children-Myanmar has emerged as the leading INGO in the region since the cyclone, coordinating a consortium of six local and international NGOs. Known as “Paung Ku,” the consortium was created to offer capacity-building support and a small grants service to the emerging local relief groups which were urgently in need of technical and financial support. Another similar consortium is the Local Resource Center (LRC) initiated by the Burnet Institute and several other INGOs.

When analyzing the expansion of the humanitarian aid programs in the region, there is no denying that Cyclone Nargis significantly altered the capacity of the INGOs in terms of the number of organizations operating and the structural expansion within those organizations. For instance, Save the Children employed around 500 staff before the cyclone; now it has a staff of 1,600.

However, now that the emergency relief period is over, many INGOs are scaling down their operations. According to a source close to Save the Children, the organization will reduce its staff by some 300 in the near future and close down five of its field offices.

Many INGOs that entered the delta after the cyclone are now leaving, even though the region is still in crisis, with many people lacking food, access to clean drinking water and shelter. Despite the evident need for their services, the INGOs are scaling down their operations or pulling out completely because they face a severe shortage of funding.

Another significant factor in the equation is the expansion of local civil society organizations (CSOs), which have continued to play a key role despite being forced to operate under numerous restrictions. One major obstacle for these local groups is that they cannot officially register or open a bank account with the state-owned Myanmar Foreign Trade Bank, which is the only conduit in the country for receiving money transfers from overseas and conducting other foreign currency transactions.

Due to such constraints, they have to rely heavily on INGOs inside the country to channel aid funds to them. This means that they are also likely to be adversely affected by the funding shortages faced by the INGOs, with the result that they may also be forced to cease or scale down their operations.

Just as aid groups working in the delta were raising the alarm about the desperate need for more international funding, a new report was released detailing human rights abuses by the junta in the wake of Cyclone Nargis.

Produced by the Thailand-based Emergency Assistance Team (Burma) with technical support from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, the report, titled “After the Storm: Voices from the Delta,” soon came under attack from some aid groups operating inside Burma.

A group of 21 INGOs—including Save the Children—challenged the credibility of the EAT-Johns Hopkins report and accused its authors of undermining the case for further aid to the survivors.

Andrew Kirkwood, the country director of Save the Children-Myanmar, said in an interview with The Irrawaddy that the EAT-Johns Hopkins report was not “balanced.” He went on to say that Save the Children was working closely with the Burmese junta.

“With [the regime’s] cooperation, we are able to do a lot of community-based assistance. So it’s really not right to say that all parts of the government are not being cooperative.”

However, some exiled groups say that criticism of the EAT-Johns Hopkins report is unfair. If the same report had been released by an internationally recognized human rights group, they say, its critics would not have been so quick to dismiss its conclusions, which were based on interviews with local villagers who would have been unwilling to speak openly with foreigners for fear of reprisals from the junta. Because most EAT members were ethnic Karen, they were able to conduct interviews discreetly to get a better picture of the situation in the delta, defenders of the report argued.

In any case, the report did not call for a moratorium on humanitarian aid to the cyclone victims, as some have erroneously reported, but simply urged the donor countries to ensure that aid is delivered with “transparency, accountability and respect for human rights.”

Although many aid groups inside Burma have been quick to defend the junta’s role in the Nargis relief effort, they have so far been silent on the fate of local aid workers who have been arrested by the regime and given prison sentences ranging from two to 35 years.

One year after Nargis, the regime has shown no signs of relenting in its efforts to intimidate local relief workers who might be tempted to offer a different picture of the situation on the ground from the official one. In early April, it handed down prison sentences to Dr Nay Win, his daughter and four colleagues for their efforts to help villagers in the delta cremate the bodies of the deceased. The six were detained by authorities and sentenced under sections 6 and 7 of the Unlawful Association Act.

Nargis changed the delta, not the junta

Speaking at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand in Bangkok on April 22, Dr Frank Smithuis of MSF Holland acknowledged that restrictions on the activities of international aid agencies outside the cyclone-affected areas remain unchanged.

The past two years have been a critical period for INGOs working in Burma, during which they have proven that they can carry out their programs to a certain extent even under severe governmental restrictions.

They should be commended for taking on this difficult task, and for their occasional criticism of the junta and efforts to change its policies, even if these efforts have so far not met with any success.

International relief agencies inside Burma have been especially effective in establishing networks that have enabled them to respond not only to the challenges they face in the field, but also to threats that could potentially undermine the continuation of international aid to Burma.

However, the time has come for the INGOs to reassess their three demands and exercise their networking mechanism to try to impress upon the junta the benefits of truly allowing the aid groups to work to the full extent of the capabilities.

More international humanitarian aid will follow if the regime genuinely creates a better operational environment without restrictions and repression.

The author is an independent researcher and a graduate in International Development Studies at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok

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