Burma Two Years After Nargis

With the military rulers of Burma preparing for their farcical general election some time later this year, millions of poor Burmese continue to live in terrible conditions in the areas affected by Typhoon Nargis, with many without pure drinking water and food or proper shelter, making a mockery of the rigged poll.

Despite the fact that two full years have passed since the devastating tropical cyclone struck on May 2, 2008, relief from international agencies, originally blocked by the junta, remains sporadic, paltry and tragically late. 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 decrepit social infrastructure and wiped out paddy fields, which at the time were being readied for the country's primary rice crop.

Now it appears that even what assistance has been arriving will diminish. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations has announced that it would stop its aid assistance in the Nargis-affected areas by July. Pu Kim, an exiled Burmese political activist, told Asia Sentinel that the military regime has done very little for the rehabilitation for the cyclone victims despite the fact that tens of thousands of people are living with only the barest necessities to survive.

"From the ground reality, we can guess it will take three more years to completely rehabilitate the affected people in the cyclone affected areas," Kim said.

There are indications that the long-suffering Burmese are getting fed up with the junta. Bomb explosions on April 19 in Rangoon markets left at least eight people dead and 94 seriously injured during the traditional water festival, generating speculation over a connection with the upcoming general election. Many Burmese Buddhists believe the bomb blast during the water festivals may have been an attempt to curse the junta. It is a Burmese tradition that cleansing human sins once a year by splashing water onto each other is necessary to be able to enter the New Year in purity. A hydropower project was hit later by four bomb blasts in Myitsone in Katchin State.

There are no clues to who were behind all the blasts. I talked to many exile Burmese activists and they are reluctant to speak on the issue. A Rangoon-based social worker hinted that democratic activists might have set off the explosives out of utter frustration. He believes more violent activities might take place in the wake of the junta's refusal to allow Aung San Suu Kyi to contest the election. No date has been set for the poll, although the numerology-happy junta is believed to be leaning towards October 10 because the 10th day of the 10th month of the 10th year of the decade hopefully would be auspicious enough to improve its chance of victory – hardly needed, since the polls are rigged to eliminate any opposition. Without Suu Kyi's participation, Asean, the United Nations and a list of western nations say the elections have no credibility.

The National League for Democracy is expected to be de-registered this week after it chose not to sign up with the Burmese election commission. The NLD recorded a massive victory in 1990, winning 392 of the 492 seats in the parliament but was denied power by the junta, which has continued to jail and intimidate the NLD's followers . Burma watchers say the NLD's decision not to contest was a great relief for the SPDC chairman Than Shwe. Nonetheless, the Nobel laureate has made it clear that her party would continue fighting for the cause of Burmese people even as a non-political organization.

The decision of the Obama administration in Washington, DC to attempt to alter the junta's behavior through engagement, announced last September, so far appears to have had little or no effect on the junta. However, the US State Department said its engagement policy would continue in the face of widespread reports that oppression continues.

For instance one new report, prepared by the New York-based based Human Rights Watch and released on April 29 in Bangkok, charges that the Burmese government "continues to deny basic freedoms and place undue restrictions on aid agencies despite significant gains in rehabilitating areas devastated by Cyclone Nargis."

Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, says that "two years after one of the world's worst natural disasters, local aid workers still feel the brunt of continued repression by the military authorities."

Speaking to media recently, Pearson described what she called continued violations of rights to free expression, association, and movement against Burmese aid workers and their organizations by the ruling SPDC."

The report, titled 'I Want to Help My Own People', is based on 135 interviews with survivors, aid workers and eye-witnesses and charges that the junta failed to use revenues from natural gas sales to adequately support reconstruction efforts and that millions of people are living in unnecessary poverty fueled by systematic corruption and repression.

Human Rights Watch demanded "renewed international pressure on the Burmese government to gain the release of imprisoned local aid workers and other political prisoners, and to ensure humanitarian aid reaches the entire country."

Last year, a report released by the Center for Public Health and Human Rights of the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health and the Emergency Assistance Team-Burma, accused the military 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.

Titled 'After the Storm: Voices from the Delta', the report 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."