By HTET AUNG
One year on and the nightmare of Cyclone Nargis still haunts the people living in Burma’s Irrawaddy delta. Those who narrowly survived the storm have seen their lives changed permanently. Proud farmers and workers are now vulnerable refugees living in makeshift shelters—their land destroyed; their livelihoods stolen by a freak storm.
The magnitude of the May 2-3 disaster—the worst in Burma’s recorded history—challenged the capacity of the military regime to conduct and control a mega relief operation for millions of its citizens, thousands of whom were dead, injured, orphaned, traumatized and homeless.
The international community responded unanimously with an outpouring of sympathy for the cyclone victims and an immediate promise of massive emergency aid into the affected areas.
The junta thanked the world by coldly rejecting the aid, dragging its feet on relief decisions and imposing a blockade on the delta region.
The impasse was eventually breached and international non-governmental organizations (INGOs) were allowed into the country to offer relief and implement humanitarian programs.
Since last May, the number of INGOs operating in the Irrawaddy delta has doubled to more than 100 and the numerous field offices around the region testify to the INGO community’s desire to help people in the delta rebuild their lives.
However, it is because of the scope and depth of this relief operation that the situation demands a networking mechanism among the INGOs to address disaster-related issues.
No such a mechanism has existed before in Burma because the authorities preferred to create an element of competition between the INGOs, playing games of favoritism and giving concessions to those who please them.
The treatment the junta dished out to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is arguably the best example of how Burmese authorities have regarded INGOs with contempt.
Renowned throughout the world for its impartiality and apolitical objectives, ICRC has managed to maintain health projects and treat the wounded in world wars, civil conflicts and humanitarian disasters since 1863. ICRC has a reputation for keeping its nose out of a country’s political affairs and has consequently been allowed to operate during military operations in Palestine, Afghanistan, both recent Iraqi wars, Rwanda and Yugoslavia.
Yet even the ICRC couldn’t navigate its way through the Burmese junta’s red tape and restrictions, including a ban on visiting prisoners. In March 2007 it made the decision to close down some of its field offices and cease some major operations in Burma due to a complete lack of cooperation from the junta.
“The ICRC's humanitarian work in Myanmar has now reached near- paralysis,” said ICRC’s Director of Operations Pierra Krahenbuhl in Geneva at the time.
Save the Children-Myanmar has emerged as the leading INGO in the region after the cyclone, coordinating a consortium of local NGOs and INGOs, such as International HIV/AIDS Alliance, the Burnet Institute, Swiss Aid, World Concern, KDN (Knowledge and Dedication for the Nation) and the Metta Foundation. Known as “Paung Ku,” the consortium was created to offer capacity-building support and a small grants service to the emerging local relief groups which were urgently in need of technical and financial support.
Save the Children has proven its mettle for its capacity to participate in broader relief operations, such as health, education, protection of women and children, shelter and food assistance, livelihood projects and logistics.
The organization was among 13 INGOs that issued a joint appeal statement in October 2007 calling for both the Burmese government and the international community to collaborate toward achieving three demands: to strengthen public sector policies by increasing public expenditure in health, education and sustainable livelihoods; to improve operating environment for local and international humanitarian organizations; and to significantly scale-up international humanitarian assistance to directly address the needs of the poor.
The joint statement was a concerted attempt by the INGOs to express their serious concern about the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Burma soon after the regime brutally cracked down on the Buddhist monks-led demonstrations.
Then, in late 2008, another major INGO, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) issued a report titled “A Preventable Fate: The Failure of ART Scale-up in Myanmar,” criticizing the Burmese authorities.
“MSF can no longer continue to scale-up ART [anti-retroviral treatment] provision, in the face of so little response by other actors. Therefore, it has had to make the painful decision to restrict the number of new patients it can treat… With growing revenue from oil and gas exports, the Government must invest more in its ailing health system and specifically HIV/AIDS care and treatment,” the report stated.
But it has become clear that the demands of the INGOs have not been met by the military regime. They will take little solace from the fact 10 years ago and no agency would dare criticize the regime for fear of its projects being disrupted.
When analyzing the expansion of the humanitarian aid programs in the region, there is no denying that Cyclone Nargis significantly altered the capacity of the INGOs in terms of the number of organizations operating and the structural expansion within those organizations.
For instance, Save the Children employed around 500 staff before the cyclone; now it has a staff of 1,600. However, now that the emergency relief period is over, INGOs are scaling down their operations. According to a source close to Save the Children, the organization will reduce its staff by 300 in the near future and close down five of its field offices.
Another significant factor in the equation is the expansion of local civil society organizations (CSOs) despite their having to operate under numerous restrictions. One major obstacle for these local groups is that they cannot officially register or open a bank account with the state-owned foreign exchange bank which is the only conduit in the country for transacting the delivery of foreign currencies. As a result, they have to rely heavily on the INGOs inside the country.
What is unforgivable is that the regime has harassed, arrested, detained and even handed down harsh prison sentences to the selfless citizens who formed small groups and weathered atrocious conditions to rescue and support victims of the cyclone.
Take the case of Dr Nay Win, a former political prisoner. He responded to the disaster along with his daughter and four colleagues by helping villagers in the delta by cremating corpses. The six were detained by authorities and sentenced earlier this month under sections 6 and 7 of Unlawful Association Act.
A litany of human rights violations by the regime in the wake of Cyclone Nargis was recorded by Thailand-based Emergency Assistance Team (Burma) with the technical help of Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in a recent report titled “After the Storm: Voices from the Delta.”
However, the report was not fully appreciated by several organizations working inside Burma. A group of 21 INGOs—including Save the Children—challenged the credibility of the EAT report and accused the group of undermining the case for further aid to the survivors. The group went on to call for dialogue with EAT-Johns Hopkins to solve their differences.
Speaking at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club in Bangkok in on April 22, Dr Frank Smithius of MSF-Holland admitted the restrictions on the activities of the international aid agencies outside the cyclone-affected areas imposed by the regime remain unchanged.
At the same panel discussion, Andrew Kirkwood, the country director of Save the Children-Myanmar reiterated the call for a humanitarian dialogue with EAT-Johns Hopkins.
In an interview with The Irrawaddy, he said the researchers’ report was not “balanced.” He went on to say that Save the Children was working closely with the Burmese junta.
“With their [the government’s] cooperation, we are able to do a lot of community-based assistance. So it’s really not right to say that all parts of the government are not being cooperative.”
However, the heads of Save the Children and MSF-Holland stopped short of calling for the release of individuals who received harsh prison sentences for undertaking humanitarian work or volunteering their services in cyclone-ravaged areas.
In short, the last two years have been critical times for INGOs in Burma and they should be commended for taking on unprecedented projects. They have stood up and criticized the junta and have made a few rare efforts to change the junta’s policies. They have also proved that they can operate even under severe governmental restrictions. Finally, they have been able to set up a cooperating and networking mechanism to collectively respond to what they believe undermines the continuation of international aid to Burma.
However, controversially, they were silent when it came time to publicly criticize the junta’s repression on local relief volunteers, despite the impartial and apolitical nature of the humanitarian work involved.
The time has come for the INGOs to reassess their three demands and exercise their networking mechanism to seek a humanitarian dialogue with the junta for the promotion and protection of the local CSOs.
International humanitarian aid will follow if the junta genuinely creates a better operational environment without restrictions and repression.
The author is an independent researcher in International Development Studies at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok.