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Myanmar: Aid still needed

Five months ago, Tropical Cyclone Nargis hit Myanmar which killed more than eighty thousand people and left 50,000 missing and 20,000 injured. It was the worst natural disaster which devastated the southern part of Myanmar.

The ruling junta of Myanmar was initially criticized for the slow relief work and for refusing the entry of international relief groups. Thanks to international pressure, the junta welcomed relief efforts from other countries. After several months, relief groups noted the improving situation inside Myanmar, with regards to the coordination of humanitarian assistance. A report from Refugees International:

“Aid agencies today report an unprecedented level of access and mobility in the Ayeyarwady Delta, which is a tribute to the successful fight by the United Nations, the Association of Southeast Asia Nations and the United States for humanitarian access. But the gains in delivering relief supplies, gathering information about needs and supporting local communities are at risk without continued commitment to food security, livelihood and early recovery activities.”

The report also highlighted the need to sustain relief operations:

“While a large majority of cyclone victims have received some sort of assistance, and most are receiving regular food aid, the process of transitioning from relief to self-sufficiency will require international help well through 2009 and perhaps beyond. The international community must continue funding humanitarian assistance and begin livelihood and other early recovery activities that will allow the gradual phasing-out of emergency aid.”

But “hardliner isolationists” continue to block foreign aid:

“Nonetheless, hardliner isolationists are still determined to prevent further international involvement in Burmese affairs. This obstructionism has raised hurdles for relief operations, such as the failed attempt to impose strict guidelines on international agencies.”

These “hardliner isolationists” could be the leaders who are wary of U.S. involvement in the humanitarian process since they fear the U.S. will topple the junta. A government document was uncovered which accused the U.S. of delivering only drinking water, instant noodles and medicine in refugee camps.

It is good to read news of recovery:

“The resilience of those who have been most affected is inspiring. A surprisingly high proportion of the Delta's paddy fields have been planted despite the destruction created by Cyclone Nargis. Still, close to a million people will rely on food assistance for many months to come. In areas such as agriculture, fishing, health and education, an enormous recovery and rebuilding task lies ahead for the affected population as well as for those seeking to assist them.”

Education officials are doubling efforts to help students. International artists are still raising money for victims.

Healthcare was provided to cyclone victims because of influx of donations and volunteer doctors. This was validated by the World Health Organisation which recognized the crucial role of government doctors, nurses and midwives in providing urgent medical treatment to cyclone survivors. An interesting suggestion from the WHO:

“One set of lessons from Nargis should be the introduction of swimming lessons for women, and family evacuation training designed to encourage men to look after older children – which requires greater strength – while women should care for babies.”

The optimism of the WHO was not shared by the Global Hope Network International:

“Most of the hardest hit places of the Ayeyarwaddy delta still refuse entry to foreigners. It is a dangerous place to work. Our teams of national workers continue to risk their freedom and lives by helping the desperately suffering. People are perpetually hungry and are not getting enough food to remain healthy. Months after cyclone Nargis devastated Myanmar, the situation remains grim and dangerous.”

Other disturbing news: Some local leaders are extorting money from villagers. Prices of commodities, like salt, are still high. Food and rice shortage could worsen because of illegal rice trade in Myanmar’s borders. About 5,000 refugees were forced out (relocated) of humanitarian camps a few weeks ago.

Only 112 orphans are officially registered in government-run orphanages. However, the initial UN estimate of children orphaned was about 2,000. Where are the other orphans? It is feared that many orphans have been recruited into the Tatmadaw, Burma’s armed forces.

New Mandala interviewed an aid worker who provided us with a believable and concrete situation inside Myanmar. The hardest part of the humanitarian work:

“Communication between agencies and the field was the most difficult problem faced. Communication infrastructure was minimal, highly regulated and controlled. It was very difficult to get a clear picture of the type and extent of damage suffered. On many occasions the only way to transfer information was to travel to other offices and collect hardcopy or transfer directly to computers. The lack of trust from aid agencies to the government and the government to the aid agencies created an environment of secrecy where many people were very hesitant to share information about their activities.”

An inspiring experience:

“I never felt unwelcome at anytime during the response. Generally the reception was positive although culturally the population is guarded about commenting or complaining openly about any ‘issues’. I think one of the most amazing things early in the response was the reaction and sharing between the affected population…The sharing of supplies between households to ensure everyone received adequate assistance was also heartening.”

Kyimaykaung ponders on the series of tragedies which struck Myanmar:

“I observe that Burmese crises are becoming closer together and more severe, which makes sense in the light, or rather darkness, of the junta's ratcheted up oppression and the accompanying systemic problems, from infrastructure to bureaucracy to an enormous army to environmental degradation.”

Pictures of the affected Myanmar communities and children orphans.

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