A couple of weeks ago I mentioned the discussion being held at the ANU in relation to Cyclone Nargis. I didn’t write up a report immediately after the event as the organisers chose to hold it under what is called the Chatham House rule. Under this rule “participants are free to use the information received, but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker(s), nor that of any other participant, may be revealed.” I was puzzled why the ANU would choose to discourage reporting of informed discussion about the cyclone, but I was willing to go along with it (and still am).

One of the participants at the meeting has written this summary which, to my reading, does not breach the letter or the spirit of the Chatham House rule. I have sought the author’s permission and am happy to post it here:

About forty people from the university, humanitarian non-government organisations, the Canberra Burmese community and people/organisations with an interest in Burma attended a Forum at the ANU on Friday 16 May. Speakers included ANU experts on Burma, humanitarian assistance practitioners, and Burmese with specialist expertise. While the Forum’s purpose was not to reach agreed conclusions, the sense of the meeting was that the following points constituted a summary of key issues that should be drawn to the attention of relevant government and non-government bodies.

  • While dismayed by the Myanmar Government’s persistent obfuscation over international assistance, the meeting was encouraged by many reports (at the Forum and elsewhere) of Burmese individuals and organisations stepping in to help cyclone victims, even when this was not their normal business, because the Myanmar Government’s responses fell so far short of what would be adequate. Clearly such civil society efforts should be supported in whatever way possible.
  • Despite communications and other difficulties, a wide range of options was available for donating relief funds; working through local partners and bypassing governments, that could enable assistance to reach affected people, so even unconventional channels that might involve some risks could be worth pursuing.
  • The Australian Government should move quickly to make it easier for financial transfers to Burmese individuals and organisations for humanitarian purposes to take place without prejudicing Australia financial sanctions against the SPDC.
  • Although immediate and preventative medical relief was already widely recognised as a high priority, the serious lack of adequate psychological relief (e.g. trauma counselling) risked being totally ignored by the Myanmar authorities and would need to be raised strongly and urgently with the Myanmar authorities at a high level.
  • The serious damage to essential social infrastructure (schools, hospitals, clinics) would place great strains on the financial, human and physical resources needed for full recovery and return to normalcy could be a long way in the future without substantial inputs of international assistance in such sectors.
  • Economic impacts ranging from disruptions to production, communications, transport and employment, could have large effects on price stability, availability of essential commodities, and general livelihood, which could mean medium-term setbacks to growth, productivity and wellbeing.
  • Agricultural rehabilitation needed to being immediately to avert food shortages, but much of the agricultural recovery would be impeded by inadequate infrastructure, resources, and technical expertise, indicating the importance of a major planned reinvestment into agricultural capacity, including via international assistance through organisations like ACIAR.
  • Food insecurity would become an even greater challenge in Myanmar/Burma in the future, and much more strategically planned international assistance into such programs should begin right away because poverty levels would initially worsen.
  • Future humanitarian assistance should include building the full range of capacities for disaster preparedness at all levels (except the military), since extremes of weather are likely to continue, and self reliance remains the key starting point.
  • The apparent depletion of technical and scientific skills in Myanmar evident in the poor government response to the cyclone exposes the problems arising from cutting off opportunities for advanced research and study, normally available through scholarships, joint research programs and university exchanges. New programs to rebuild scientific knowledge base seem to be called for.
  • In the light of all of the above, Australia should urgently re-assess the appropriateness of not including Burma/Myanmar in a normal aid program, including most importantly access to Australian Government scholarships, when the participants in such a program would be private individuals most of whom would take their acquired knowledge back to Burma. Current policy serves neither the interests of Burma/Myanmar nor of Australia.
  • There were risks that vulnerable population could become the target of wider human rights abuses, including forced labour (for rebuilding), forced relocation, and forced conscription (because of unemployment), and renewed repression of civil society groups (including monks), which suggested that enhanced vigilance by human rights monitoring bodies would be necessary.
  • Finally, exaggerated, overly emotional and unsubstantiated media reporting risked complicating international responses, underlying the importance of better dissemination of reliable data, more balanced and careful commentary and public statements, and a greater foreign media presence inside Burma/Myanmar.
  • The ANU could perform a useful role by sponsoring an Internet site where topical research and proposals could be brought together.

In relation to the last point, New Mandala is, of course, happy to host ongoing discussion of these issues.