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BURMA: Cyclone Relief – Distrust of Junta Deters Donors

Marwaan Macan-Markar

BANGKOK, Oct 23 2008 (IPS) - Burma’s military regime is struggling to attract international aid nearly six months after the powerful Cyclone Nargis tore through the country’s Irrawaddy Delta. The financial shortfall has more to do with distrust of the junta than donor fatigue.

Currently, only 50 percent of the 482 million US dollars that had been sought in a U.N. flash appeal has come in, the world body states in its assessment of pledges for the natural disaster in Myanmar, as the country is also known.

The lack of funding is expected to hamper plans to meet the humanitarian needs of millions of victims and help in the early recovery programmes. Some 13 U.N. agencies and 23 non-governmental organisations (NGOs) were due to dip into these funds for ‘’critically-needed assistance’’ that was to last through April 2009.

According to a July report by a tripartite body that includes U.N. officials and representatives of the junta, the total damage caused by Nargis, which struck in the early hours of May 3, was put at four billion U.S. dollars. The official death toll, according to the Post-Nargis Joint Assessment (PONJA), was 84,537 with 53,836 people missing and 19,359 injured.

‘’Data shows that some 2.4 million people were severely affected by the cyclone, out of an estimated 7.35 million people living in the affected townships,’’ added PONJA, which has the Association of South-east Asian Nations (ASEAN), a 10-member regional bloc where Burma is a member, as its third partner.

Yet other estimates have put the human toll much higher, with possibly close to 300,000 people being killed and some 5.5 million people affected.

Critics of the regime are hardly surprised by the funding shortfall since the disaster, remarking that it is a vote of no confidence by the donor community against military leaders notorious for their history of oppression, corruption and the destruction of what had once been a promising economy.

‘’The international community has not forgotten Burma. The money has not come in because of a lack of transparency, accountability and because the military regime has come in the way of aid,’’ says Sann Aung, a cabinet minister in the last elected Burmese government, now living in exile. ‘’The people are suffering as a result of the regime’s terrible reputation.’’

‘’It is not too late for the regime to allow independent monitoring of aid and support a system of accountability to make sure that the cyclone victims benefit from the aid,’’ Sann Aung added during an interview. ‘’There are still many restrictions that prevent NGOs and the U.N. having proper access to the people in the delta.’’

But not everyone agrees with such an assessment. The International Crisis Group (ICG), a Brussels-based think tank, is calling for the international community, particularly the Western nations, led by the U.S. government, to re-examine their aid policies to Burma in the wake of Nargis.

‘’The international community should build on the unprecedented cooperation between the Mayanmar government and humanitarian agencies following cyclone Nargis and reverse longstanding, counter productive policies,’’ the ICG argues in a new report released this week.

Holding back aid to pressure the junta into pursuing genuine political reform that ushers an open, vibrant democracy has not worked, reveals the 33-page ‘Burma/Myanmar After Nargis: Time to Normalise Aid Relations. ‘’Twenty years of aid restrictions – which see Myanmar receiving 20 times less assistance per capita than other least-developed countries – have weakened, not strengthened, the forces for change.’’

‘’Aid is valuable in its own right for alleviating suffering, as well as a potential means of opening up a closed country, improving governance and empowering people to take control of their own lives,’’ says John Virgoe, ICG’s South-east Asia project director.

The report is as critical of the Western governments’ failure to fund the 482-million-dollar flash appeal. ‘’This is regrettable, not only from the perspective of the cyclone survivors,’’ it notes.

‘’Many (donors) have been reluctant to extend their otherwise generous support for the affected communities into the recovery and rehabilitation work, raising doubts about how much international agencies will be able to do in this area,” ICG said.

In fact, the ICG implies that the international community has been unfairly harsh in its aid policies towards Burma when set against international assistance to other repressive countries.

While the overseas development assistance in 2006 was 2.88 U.S. dollars per person in Burma, the average assistance for the other 50 poorest countries was over 58 U.S. dollars per person, it reveals in a footnote. ‘’Other countries with similarly repressive governments receive much more aid: Sudan (55 dollars per person); Zimbabwe (21 dollars per person); Laos (63 dollars per person).’’

The misery caused by Nargis added to the woes of a country where over a third of its 57 million people live in absolute poverty and where along the borders – home to the country’s discriminated ethnic communities – poverty rates are far higher, reaching over 50 percent in some areas. Child malnutrition affects over a third of the under five population, states a U.N. report.

The tough sanctions and aid restrictions imposed on Burma followed a brutal crackdown of a pro-democracy uprising in 1988, where thousands of protesters were killed by troops.

The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), for instance, has had its hands tied by a 1992 U.S. law that threatens funding cuts if the U.N. agency has any programmes linked to a Burmese government agency.

But even if this appeal to normalise aid relations prompts a change attitude among the donors, it will amount to little for the victims unless the military regime agrees to abide by prevailing humanitarian aid principles and practices.

‘’These principles are not new, but the regime is refusing to recognise and implement these international norms,’’ Khin Ohmar, coordinator of the Burma Partnership, a network of Burmese and regional NGOs, told IPS.

‘’The international community should understand that the Burmese in the delta survived with nothing before the cyclone, and it has continued even after the disaster,’’ she added. ‘’We want the people to benefit from the aid, not the military regime.’’

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