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Myanmar junta's 'aid wall' still a hindrance

May 14, 2009

One year after the deadly cyclone hit Myanmar, freelance journalist Brian McCartan analyses the response of military rulers and donor countries to the tragedy. Many international aid groups complain that the junta has maintained restrictions in other parts of the country, effectively building an "aid wall" around the Nargis-hit delta.

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 organisations 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 organisation 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 them."

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 organisations 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 organisations maintain that their relief and development aid programmes 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 organisation 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 organisations were already working in the area. Karen State remains largely off-limits to international organisations, 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 education.

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 organisations.

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.

Impatient donors

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 organisation that many believe will be the military's political vehicle at the polls.

Opposition organisations 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 criticising 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.

Source : Asia Times
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