A note-taking New Mandala reader has contributed a very interesting account of a recent seminar hosted by the Australian National University’s College of Asia and the Pacific. This report provides an excellent overview of the event and its take home messages.

On Tuesday, 14 October, Paul Risley, the Asia Regional Communications Advisor and Spokesperson for the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) visited the Australian National University and discussed Cyclone Nargis and the international humanitarian intervention in Myanmar (Burma).

Overall, Risley gave the impression that the military junta had done a remarkably bad job of dealing with the immediate aftermath of the cyclone, and although after about a month it had become more relaxed with the role of international agencies, particularly at regional levels, at its higher echelons it remains an unusually difficult government with which to engage.

Risley noted that the cyclone’s original trajectory had it moving towards Bangladesh and that the city of Chittagong was evacuated in preparation for the storm but when it then veered eastwards there were no official warnings issued to the people in its path or special arrangements made. The junta did not seem to acknowledge or care about the scale of the disaster in its first days, and for some of the senior officers in Naypyidaw it was only apparently through phone calls from wives and relatives in the affected areas that they learned about what had happened. He contrasted the junta’s refusal to accept emergency international aid sent by foreign military forces during these days with the prompt acceptance of such offers by the Indonesian and Chinese governments after the Indian Ocean tsunami and the Sichuan earthquake, and commented on the difficulties that the WFP initially faced in getting personnel, supplies and equipment into the country: out of 12 visa applications lodged by the organisation, only one was accepted.

Risley explained that the mounting obstacles and desperate need to get some sort of assistance through led some governments and groups to use a “dump and run” strategy, flying in planeloads of “low value” supplies, like ration biscuits, and dropping them on the tarmac in the hope that some at least would reach their target group and also that new possibilities might be opened up. Admiral Keating, the commander of the US Pacific Command, came with the first planeload of American supplies and although the authorities didn’t even want to let him or anyone off the plane, he insisted on meeting with a Burmese counterpart in the hope of starting dialogue with someone who could perhaps do something to remove some obstacles. Keating waited for around two hours before a Burmese navy officer was brought to the airport VIP lounge and flanked by army generals who were clearly more important than he, had a polite exchange that made no progress towards anything at all. The Americans continued flying in “low value” supplies that would in other circumstances have been sent by ship, dumping a total of about 150 planeloads before stopping the operation.

In response to the peculiar difficulties with getting people and supplies into Myanmar from abroad at this time, the WFP began moving as many of its people and resources from inside the country to the affected areas. By the time that Ban Ki Moon visited after May 20 it was getting locally-purchased supplies into villages by a series of vessels, from truck to barge and barge to boat. In about half of the villages it reached two to three weeks after the cyclone it found people who were saying that this was the first assistance of any sort that they had received. Following Ban’s visit, the UN was allowed to bring in ten helicopters, which had to be flown across from South Africa via Bangkok and didn’t arrive until May 28. The first one was put into service on June 1, a month after the cyclone. “Ideally you want helicopters within 72 hours in response to a disaster but it took a little longer in this case,” Risley observed.

Despite the many obstacles to international aid in the immediate period after the cyclone, Risley said that later it had become much easier to work, and the response to Nargis is still by far the largest international relief effort in the world in the past year. There has also been a “remarkable” change in working conditions in the delta compared to May and June, with over 25 INGOs present, the regional military command now comfortable with their role, easy travelling through checkpoints, cooperation with local government-organised and backed groups, like the Myanmar Red Cross, and no difficulties getting visas. Many people believe that the government has gone from being fearful of the international presence to expecting a big payoff in the form of large development aid (of which it has received very little in recent years) for the rehabilitating of farmlands and, in Risley’s words, the replacement of dead buffalo with new mechanical equipment for agricultural production.

In concluding, Risley said that a cynical viewpoint of the cyclone and international response would be that the military government has been able to keep the doors of the country mostly closed and that its rule has been entrenched and not much if anything has changed. Alternatively, another viewpoint is that some doors have opened, especially through the work of ASEAN and the Singapore foreign minister, and that there now exist new opportunities that weren’t there before the cyclone. He didn’t say which of these views he himself shares.

In the question and answer session that followed, a member of the audience asked about what the WFP had done to support and work through the networks of monks who had assisted survivors in the aftermath of the tragedy. Risley acknowledged the important traditional role of the monasteries and the remarkable efforts they had made in the first days after the cyclone, and said that in the first phase the WFP had also distributed food through the monasteries but that the government had seemingly become embarrassed and uncomfortable with the monks taking a lead role, as it also had with the photos coming out of queues of people getting assistance from other civilians, and it had told the WFP and others to stop distributing through the monasteries by giving the reason that they had become too crowded. He also said that from mid-July the WFP had encountered the problem of having to shift from purchasing rice locally to purchasing it internationally on instruction from the government, and that this resulted in a period in which it had to scale back distribution while the overseas purchases were still being made and the rice imported, most from Thailand.

Another member of the audience mentioned that there had been a report that the WFP would scale back its operations in the coming period (see this news article on The Irrawaddy). Risley also acknowledged this and said that in two weeks time the WFP will have to stop “general food distributions” and move to “targeted food distributions”. He said that although general distributions usually only continue for about three months after a disaster, in this case given the special nature and scale of the tragedy the WFP had planned to continue with general distributions until next May, through a full harvest, and then go to a six month operation with food for work projects and so on. But because of another arbitrary instruction from the government the general distributions will end in two weeks. He said that although the local leaders are nervous about the consequences of this, the government is adamant. As a result, around one third of people currently getting WFP assistance will no longer get it, in other words, the operation will be scaled back from direct aid to upwards of a million people to between 600,000 – 700,000. It is, he concluded, part of the constant difficulty of negotiating with this regime which makes it “very difficult to tell” what may happen in the future.