Blowback on Myanmar's cyclone disaster
By Brian McCartan
CHIANG MAI - The tragic human cost of last year's Cyclone Nargis has never been
in question: the killer storm in Myanmar took the lives of an estimated 146,000
people and left millions more homeless. One year later, however, there are few
answers to how the disaster's political legacy will shape the future of
military run Myanmar.
While some hope the junta's cooperation with foreign aid agencies might signal
a move towards openness, others doubt the regime has any intention of changing
fundamentally its isolationist and authoritarian ways.
An estimated 2.4 million people are still adversely affected by the natural
disaster, with hundreds of thousands still without adequate
shelter and reliant on foreign aid organizations for food and water. The junta
was slow to respond to the disaster and in line with its famous suspicion of
foreign influence initially even blocked access to international aid agencies
that offered emergency assistance.
When the scale of the damage became apparent, the military government under
heavy international pressure eventually allowed foreign relief workers to enter
the worst-affected areas. A deal brokered with the United Nations and the
Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) established the Tripartite Core
Group (TCG) to coordinate aid and recovery efforts.
That led to a relaxing of restrictions on aid worker visas, travel, relief
supply imports and allowed for the establishment of aid projects in the
worst-hit delta region. The Washington DC-based refugee advocacy organization
Refugees International called last month for the Barack Obama-led US government
to commit US$30 million in food, basic health care and education aid throughout
Myanmar in 2010.
Obama's administration has promised to review the US's current policy towards
Myanmar, including the use of economic and financial sanctions to pressure for
political change. A Washington move towards providing more bilateral emergency
aid, some suggest, could presage a broader policy shift.
Joel Charny, Refugees International's vice president, said on April 29, "The
[Myanmar] regime is one of the most repressive in the world, but the people of
[Myanmar] shouldn't be punished for the actions of the generals." He added:
"Now that it is clearly possible to provide aid inside the country
transparently and effectively, any change in US policy should reflect the needs
of the [Myanmar] people and show a strong and ongoing commitment to assist
Many international aid groups are angling to extend their activities beyond the
Irrawaddy Delta and into other areas across the impoverished country. They
complain that the junta has maintained restrictions in other parts of the
country, effectively building an "aid wall" around the Nargis-hit delta.
According to a former UN worker in Myanmar, international aid organizations led
by the UN have been pushing to avoid having their projects legally fixed to the
delta through the memoranda of understanding the junta initially agreed on.
Aid as politics
Myanmar's broad humanitarian situation remains grim, with the UN putting the
national poverty rate at over one-third of the population in a 2005 study. More
recent statistics are hard to come by because of the government's secrecy.
However, in certain geographical areas the situation is believed to have become
worse since Nargis.
Although aid organizations maintain that their relief and development aid
programs are apolitical, the military rulers clearly still believe an extended
relief effort could have political repercussions, including unwanted observers
of its alleged human-rights abuses and empowerment of grassroots communities.
For instance, a famine in Chin State caused by an infestation of rats in food
supplies is ongoing, while human-rights organization Karen Human Rights Group
alleged in an April report that government policies ordering the army to live
off the land had resulted in widespread extortion of food from already
desperate villagers in conflict-ridden Karen State.
While the government has granted permission for assistance to communities in
Chin State, a former aid worker told Asia Times Online most of those
international organizations were already working in the area. Karen State
remains largely off-limits to international organizations, except for
non-government sanctioned cross-border aid from Thailand. And while the
Rohingya refugee crisis in Thailand earlier this year sparked new international
interest in Arakan State's humanitarian situation, the government has allowed
few new aid projects in the area.
Outside of the delta, government restrictions on travel by foreign aid workers
and on their projects are still in place, and approvals for projects remain a
time-consuming process. Government officials are still required to accompany
workers on field visits, making it all but impossible to discuss freely with
local counterparts and civilians about the on-the-ground situation.
This month, Oxfam announced that millions of people in the worst-hit delta
region faced worsening debts since the killer storm as farmers and fishermen
without assistance are forced to borrow money for sustenance and to purchase
farming and fishing inputs. Already struggling to survive before the cyclone,
they risk falling into a cycle of debt that they can never escape.
The government's critics argue that the generals have spent little from their
own coffers on relief efforts. An April 30 press release issued by US pressure
group Human Rights Watch said the regime had accumulated an estimated US$3.5
billion in foreign reserves and receives some $150 million monthly from gas
export revenues. Opponents of the regime have frequently commented on the
generals' preference for military spending over funding for health and
The TCG's three-year recovery plan, known as the Post-Nargis Recovery and
Preparedness Plan, revealed in February that it will require an additional $690
million to restore the Irrawaddy Delta to pre-cyclone conditions. Only $300
million has been raised so far and TCG now says that the Myanmar government has
committed but so far failed to provide matching funds.
The Emergency Assistance Team (EAT), a group of foreign and local health and
relief workers based on the Myanmar-Thai that has unofficially provided
assistance in the delta, accused Myanmar government officials in an April 1
open letter to the TCG and ASEAN of widespread corruption, human-rights abuses,
including forced labor and restrictions on recovery efforts led by local
The EAT is already at the center of a dispute between largely exile and
Thailand-based relief groups and the international aid community over cyclone
relief. A highly critical report by EAT, together with the Johns Hopkins
Bloomberg School of Public Health, released in March was challenged by a group
of 21 international agencies which questioned its credibility and accused the
authors of undermining continued aid to survivors.
Meanwhile, certain sections of the foreign aid community appear to be losing
patience. In December 2008, the European Commission announced that it would
give another US$54 million in aid to Myanmar, with $29.3 dedicated to cyclone
relief and funneled through the UN, Red Cross and international agencies, and
the rest for other problems in Myanmar and for refugees along the Thai border.
Louis Michel, EU Development Commissioner said at the time, "The commission
will continue advocating for similar cooperation and access to other parts of
the country." That attitude apparently shifted on April 21 when Koos Richelle,
the director general of the EU's aid office, said after a two-day meeting of
Asian and European aid officials in Manila that there would be no formal talks
with Myanmar on aid or development projects until it opens up.
Accusing the generals of shutting themselves off from the rest of the world,
Richelle said, "It's not us punishing them, it's them not opening up for what
we consider to be normal contact." On April 27, the European Union decided to
extend economic sanctions against Myanmar, underscoring the grouping's
discontent with the junta's lack of political reforms.
The EU's sanctions, in place since 2006, include a travel ban on top Myanmar
officials, an arms embargo, bans on imports of timber and some gems, and a
freeze of Myanmar official assets held in Europe. In its decision to renew the
sanctions, the EU offered to review sanctions if Myanmar's regime showed signs
of democratic reform.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stirred debate on the sanctions question
when she said in February that the US would review its Myanmar policy. However,
on April 29, US State Department Assistant Secretary for Legislative Affairs
Richard Verma wrote in a letter to US congressman Peter King that sanctions
would not be part of any policy review, which apparently will aim instead at
exploring options for creating dialogue with the regime.
At the same time, both the US State Department and Senate are believed to be
interested in finding avenues to increase US humanitarian assistance to Myanmar
without directly benefiting the regime. In the wake of Cyclone Nargis, the US
increased its bilateral aid to Myanmar from US$3 million annually to US$75
million to help cover the relief efforts. According to a source familiar with
the Senate's review, John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations
Committee, favors a policy of increasing humanitarian aid as long as
disbursements bypass the ruling junta.
Even with those conciliatory gestures, Myanmar's military regime has failed to
answer repeated international calls to guarantee that elections scheduled for
2010 will be free and fair. Although it has yet to announce laws concerning the
elections and the establishment of political parties, it has transferred many
military officers to make them eligible to stand for election and strengthened
the position of the Union Solidarity and Development Association, an ostensibly
mass organization that many believe will be the military's political vehicle at
Opposition organizations and human-rights groups hold up the regime's refusal
to release over 2,100 political prisoners as proof the election's will lack
legitimacy. Among those being held are 21 community relief workers arrested
while handing out aid and criticizing the government's response to Cyclone
Nargis. Meanwhile, the government last week rejected an appeal lodged against
opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi's continued detention, which was legally
supposed to expire this month.
After almost two decades of confrontation and sanctions, Western policymakers
are still searching for new ways to effectively engage Myanmar's obstinate
generals and move them towards positive political change. In turn, the
humanitarian aid community's outreach in the Irrawaddy Delta has not resulted
in greater openness but rather represents the latest example of the junta's
well-worn open-and-closed strategy for maintaining power.
Brian McCartan is a Chiang Mai-based freelance journalist. He may be
reached at email@example.com.