A year after Nargis

In the year since the devastating tropical cyclone Nargis struck Burma on May 2, 2008, some 2 million of its citizens continue to live in terrible conditions, with many without pure drinking water and food or proper shelter. Despite the fact that a full year has passed since the disaster, relief from international agencies, originally blocked by the junta, remains sporadic, paltry and tragically late.

After international donors came up with a relatively small US$ $310 million, the United Nations, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and the Burmese government have belatedly finalized a recovery plan budgeted for US$691 million to restore livelihoods and housing through grants and microfinance. It is understood that the initiative might take three more years to put in place. Almost criminally, the afflicted have been left largely to fend for themselves. With another monsoon season approaching, agricultural production is suffering primarily because of salinity in the water, poor quality rice seeds, lack of draft animals and agricultural labor, setting the stage for additional famine.

Originating a year ago in the Bay of Bengal, the cyclone ripped a trail of destruction across the entire Irrawaddy and Rangoon divisions and ravaged parts of the Bago, Mon and Kayin regions as well. A wall of water four meters high is said to have rolled some 25 miles inland across the Irrawaddy River Valley, flattening everything in its path.

Although the military government reported the final death toll as 84,537, with 53,836 missing, independent estimates are that 140,000 were killed and tens of thousands more have never been found. The cyclone devastated the already spavined social infrastructure, and wiped out paddy fields, which at the time were being readied for the country's primary rice crop. More than 80,000 sq km were affected

The devastation was almost unimaginable. The United Nations estimates that Nargis affected 2.4 million people and rendered tens of thousands of families homeless. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization estimates nearly 300,000 water buffalo and cows, 7,500 goats, 65,000 pigs, 1.5 million chicken and ducks were killed. It also laid waste to most of fish ponds, hatcheries and shrimp farms in the localities.

Nearly 1 million acres of farmland in the Irrawaddy and 300,000 acres in Rangoon were destroyed. More than 800 000 houses were wrecked in addition to schools and hospitals.

Frightened that massive numbers of foreign aid workers in their country might create trouble for them, not only did the ruling State Peace and Development Council seek to hide the numbers of casualties, the junta also initially prevented international aid workers from entering the country. International agencies and local donors were stopped from entering the affected areas and delivering the aid that was meant for hundreds of thousands of people in jeopardy.

The junta was condemned across the world for its arrogant and inhuman behavior. Suzanne DiMaggio of the Asia Society's Social Issues Program said that for nearly five decades, Burma's military rulers had systematically undermined the interests of their own citizens. It wasn't until days into the tragedy, goaded by international criticism, that the SPDC chief senior general Than Shwe found the time to visit the destroyed areas.

But that began to change. Aid workers in the country say the military rulers were softened only after a personal visit of the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in the middle of May. Slowly communications between Naypyidaw and the international agencies began to improve. Visas and travel permits were made a little easier and faster for the foreign aid workers. They do say the country has opened to some extent to the international community and that the storm has seemingly played the role of catalyst for change although it is early days to say what the change will be.

Still, for the long-suffering citizens, the situation remains much the same as the days immediately after the cyclone hit. The military lacked not only the will to clean up after the storm, but the country's long-dilapidated physical plant meant it also lacked the resources. Although there are no refuges in the camps as the military dismantled them nearly six months ago, those affected face unending trauma.

"The humanitarian situation in Burma remains desperate even a year after Nargis," said the young Burmese writer Zoya Phan. The author of ‘Little Daughter', while talking to the London-based media, said poor Burmese are still struggling to rebuild their lives. "Those who survived had their attempts to recover hindered by the country's military rulers, who obstructed access of vital aid supplies in the aftermath of the cyclone."

One recent independent report, which was jointly released by the Center for Public Health and Human Rights of the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health and the Emergency Assistance Team-Burma which was formed in May last year, accused the dictators of failing to provide adequate food, water and shelter to the survivors and even then continuing to violate the rights of the victims as well as the local relief workers.

"The junta's response was marred by failures to warn, failures to respond, limits on humanitarian assistance from independent Burmese NGOs and citizens, and limits on humanitarian assistance from international entities eager to assist," said the report, titled ‘After the Storm: Voices from the Delta.' The report also asserted that the junta obstructed relief, arrested aid workers and severely restrained accurate information in the wake of the disaster. It also added: "Relief workers witnessed systematic obstruction of relief aid, willful acts of theft and the sale of relief supplies, forced relocation, and the use of forced labor for reconstruction projects, including forced child labor."

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Professor Chris Beyrer, director of the Center for Public Health and Human Rights at Johns Hopkins, said in an interview that the findings of the reports ‘are evidence of a wide array of abuses perpetrated by the ruling SPDC in the response to a disaster which is in violation of international humanitarian relief norms and legal frameworks for disaster relief'.

Talking to Asia Sentinel from London, Tyaza Thuria, a Burmese exile, expressed his anger that the military regime had done nothing for the rehabilitation for the cyclone victims.

"They are only interested in retaining political power," Thuria said. "So they went ahead with their plans for referendum (only to forcefully approve the pro-military constitution) and finally to install a puppet civilian regime after the 2010 polls," he said.

Meanwhile, the UN has highlighted urgent needs for those affected by the cyclone. Addressing a donor meeting in Rangoon during the first week of April, Bishow Parajuli, the UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator, emphasized that there remains an urgent need for sustainable shelter and agricultural support ahead of this monsoon season.

"Immense humanitarian and development challenges continue to exist" in other parts of the country besides the Irrawaddy valley and Rangoon, Parajuli added.

Organized by the UN, the meeting was attended by around 70 participants, including the heads of diplomatic missions, UN Agencies and National and International Non-Governmental Organizations.

Speaking to Asia Sentinel from Rangoon, Astrid Sehl, the communications officer for the UN in Burma, said the level of humanitarian assistance currently being provided is far below the level of actual needs of the people.

"Most people have returned to their villages of origin or relocated elsewhere," she said, "However, pockets remain in which a number of households have yet to find durable solutions and relocations or returns still have to be facilitated," she added.

Amnesty International remains critical of the junta for forcibly displacing the Nargis survivors out of temporary shelters. The NGO's Benjamin Zawacki said in an interview that the junta later targeted monasteries, where many survivors were taking shelter. The junta remains frightened by the power of the Buddhist monks, who brought tens of thousands of people into the streets in 2007 before their saffron revolution was crushed by the military and the concept that thousands of people were receiving shelter and succor from the pagodas led to the action.

Condemning the junta in strongest words, Zawacki said Amnesty International had confirmed not less than 30 instances in which the junta had kicked people out of the monasteries in the aftermath of the cyclone.

A recent report by the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Food Program revealed that at least 10 percent of Burma's 50 million people have been reduced to living | below the food poverty line. The report of the crop and food security assessment mission to Burma disclosed that over five million people are finding it difficult to access to nutritious food.

The junta representatives claim that the devastated rice fields of Irrawaddy delta were replanted and that schools, hospitals and other infrastructure have been repaired. "Now, children are back in school, people are working again, the rice crop harvested and transport and health facilities are again accessible," claimed U Kyaw Thu, the deputy Burmese Foreign Minister a few months back.

He went on to say that ‘despite the devastation following Nargis, there has been no significant increase in morbidity and mortality,". Health service provision, he said, has been made available to the population with a particular focus on preventing disease outbreaks and meeting emergency nutrition problems, he added.

But amidst all of the negative aspects, many believe that the devastation has finally compelled the junta to bow down to the mission of international humanitarian to deliver the aid to survivors. The junta, for instance, finally agreed to join hands with the UN and Asean, whose secretary general Surin Pitsuwan recently said he hoped that the government and the people have gained a higher degree of confidence after the relief and rehabilitation exercise, as they had the opportunity to work with the international community and donors.

The former Foreign Minister of Thailand, Pitsuwan is credited to break the ice in initiating a Tripartite Core Group among which includes the representatives from the ASEAN, the UN and the Burmese government. The forum was officially declared on May 31 to at last to pave way for sustained support to the Nargis victims – a full year after it should have been.

Speaking to Asia Sentinel from an Indo-Burma location, a pro-democracy activist under the pseudonym Win Naing said that although the aid was a one-time effort with no political influence, it should play an important role in the changing political and diplomatic equation.

"We are aware it will take more than just aid to the Nargis survivors to bring the change we are talking about," he said. "Neither will it herald democracy for us. But the newfound link between the Burmese and the world communities is expected to enhance the confidence of those poverty stricken people of our country. It has the potential to influence the military rulers in the long run for improving the human rights record in Burma."

Nonetheless, Aung San Suu Ky, by far the country's most popular figure and the leader of the opposition, remains under house arrest where she has been since 1989. There is little sign that she will be freed for elections that would decisively throw the government out of power if they were to be held.