As the one-year anniversary of Cyclone Nargis passed, there was much to contemplate. The international media and the Burmese-run journals have printed memorials and analyses of the political situation in Myanmar one year post-Nargis. Up until now, the international media has painted a predisposed and regrettably misleading portrait of relief and humanitarian assistance in the Irawaddy Delta in the past year.
Although the pro-democracy exiled community doesn’t want to hear it, the fact of the matter is that there have been remarkable achievements in Cyclone Nargis disaster relief by the UN, INGOs, and ASEAN, and that the Myanmar government has cooperated extensively with the international community in allowing access for NGOs to operate. That said, there have been many severe stumbling blocks, and in general there are many limitations to humanitarian work in Myanmar. Notably, in the first month after the storm hit, the government blocked access to the Delta, and was wary of international aid. [As an aside, some academics – such as Andrew Selth – have argued that for a regime with a distinct fear of invasion, the United States, France, and Britain’s decisions to position aid on warships in the Bay of Bengal hours after the storm hit was probably not the most sensible move.]
It is integral to recognise that after the first month of heavy-handedness and obstruction on the Government of Myanmar’s part, NGO and UN access to the Delta was comparable to other disaster relief situations in developing countries around the world. The creation of the Tri-partite Core Group (TCG) made up of the Government of Myanmar, ASEAN, and the UN, has been an integral component to the success of functioning relief, early recovery, disaster preparedness, and development work in the Irrawaddy Delta. The accommodation and cooperation post-Nargis on the part of the regime in Naypyidaw is unprecedented. As such, it needs to be built upon. As Jake Kurtzer has recently advocated, the international community should “capitalize on the gains” made in the past year and aim to normalise aid relations with Myanmar.
Regrettably, exiled Burmese pro-democracy based in locations such as the Thai-Burma border and United States, have campaigned for a moratorium on humanitarian assistance to Myanmar in line with the sanctions policy against Myanmar enacted by the U.S. and EU. Some lobbyists claim that any UN agency or INGO that acts in Myanmar is complicit with the controlling regime and contributes to its hold on power. This is simply not the situation. If one is concerned with the human rights of people living in Myanmar, suggesting a cessation of apolitical development aid is counterintuitive.
In February, Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health and EAT-Burma (Emergency-Assistance Team Burma) joint-published a report entitled After the Storm: Voices from the Delta, which can be found here. In a press release for the report, it is asserted that the “…SPDC should be referred by the UNSC for investigation by the ICC for its human rights abuses in the wake of Cyclone Nargis last year.” [Bear in mind, that this report was published at the same time that the ICC indicted President al-Bashir, prompting his response of booting out 13 INGOs from aid-dependant Darfur.]
Regrettably, the report is clumsy, non-academic, amateurish, unprofessional, and politicised at best. At worst, it is potentially damaging. The report uses questionable methodology and paints a misleading and poorly contextualised picture that the present state of affairs in the Delta involves forced labour, confiscated relief supplies, and systematic obstruction of humanitarian action.
The report prompted a response from a cohort of INGOs operating in Myanmar. Signatories include Save the Children, CARE, NRC, and PSI. It is well worth reading, in order to get a balanced and accurate view of the realities of the humanitarian situation in Burma post-Nargis. The 21 INGOs state the following: “The implications and conclusions of the EAT-Johns Hopkins report that abuses are systematic, ongoing and being ignored, are inaccurate and without basis. We found a number of shortcomings in the report, including its premise, methodology, and most of its findings.”
EAT-CPHHR published a rejoinder to the INGO statement, signed by Dr. Cynthia Maung, as well as Dr. Chris Breyrer. While a full-scale discussion of the letter is outside the scope of this short article, a look into it is an interesting exercise into the politics and emotions that arise from the divisions between the exiled communities in the Burmese diaspora and those who live in and can access Myanmar.
The fact of the matter is that neighbouring Laos receives around US$49 a head for development each year. Sudan, a region with a similar HDI Index rating, receives $55. Because donors from Western nations are wary of dealing with the junta, Myanmar receives $2.80 a head per year in aid. How can this be justified when Myanmar is one of the poorest countries in the world, let alone Asia?
The picture is certainly not perfect. There are intensive limitations on what INGOs are allowed to do in Myanmar, and in order to provide disaster relief there are still intensively over-bureaucratic and clumsy procedures. However, INGOs themselves are reporting that the government is cooperating better than it ever has in the past, and it seems that one year on, the international community and the media, is starting to recognise what the stakeholders have been saying.
An interview with the Country Director of Save the Children in Myanmar points towards the general feeling. When asked what difficulties and restrictions his organisation faced in delivering aid in the Delta, Andrew Kirkwood responds that the biggest challenges Save the Children faces are logistical; the difficulties and dangers of reaching villages only by small boats, navigating the tides and the weather of the Delta. Note that visa restrictions, travel restrictions, and the government stealing supplies, are nowhere to be found on his list.
The New York Times just published a short piece recognising the “subtle changes” in policy and practice in the Delta, but not before describing the challenges still faced in the region, including “salty fields, wells and reservoirs; a dependence on food handouts; strangled local credit; [and] another monsoon season approaching.” Dr. Frank Smithius, a long-term resident in Myanmar and country director for Medecins Sans Frontieres – Holland (AZG), states that “the human rights record is shaky, yes, and it’s politically nice to beat up Burma, but the military has actually been quite helpful to us.”
The time is ripe for opportunity to be wasted. ASEAN and the UN need to build upon the gains that have been made in the past year. The international community, including the media and exiled Burmese, should be encouraging this rather than obstructing progress with misleading reports such as After the Storm. If not, there is the possibility of a complete breakdown in the improvements. It is possible that this is already starting to happen.
In the past few weeks, there have been numerous signals that the government is starting to wane on its commitments. In February, U Kyaw Thu, the chairman of the TCG had has position changed from Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs to Minister of the Civil Service Selection and Training board. Some of the initial speculation came true – it seems that this was a signal from the Government of Myanmar that they were going to begin to revert to tightening limitations on international aid delivery. In the past few weeks, UN staff and NGO aid workers have been facing severe difficulties in obtaining work visas to enter Myanmar, with many being stuck outside the country after the Thingyan holiday.
It remains to be seen what the outcome will be for the bigger picture in terms of politics in Myanmar. The next few months will be crucial; the Obama administration is reconsidering their Burma strategy, and the Government of Myanmar is expected to announce the details of its planned 2010 national election. One can only hope that for the sake of the residents of the Irrawaddy Delta, the international community will wake up and contribute to the UN Revised Appeal for US$691 million in order to meet the relief and early recovery needs for Cyclone Nargis’ many victims.
Dylan Grey lives in Yangon.