Toward Democracy, Human Rights and Federalism

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Burma in the Aftermath of Cyclone Nargis: Death, Displacement, and Humanitarian Aid

Tuesday, June 10 2008, 11:19 AM EDT
The recent cyclone has killed tens of thousands and ravaged homes, farms, and infrastructures leaving a lasting imprint of destruction which will take months, if not years, for the millions of survivors to recover from. Even though the death toll cannot be confirmed with certainty yet, the estimation so far is that over 100,000 people are dead or missing -- 40 percent of whom are believed to be children -- and nearly 1.5-2.5 million people will suffer from the consequences of the cyclone.

Burma in the Aftermath of Cyclone Nargis: Death, Displacement, and Humanitarian Aid

By Dr. Sein Win, MP-Elect (Paukkaung Constituency)

Honorable Members of Congress,

Please allow me to express my sincere gratitude to the Subcommittee on Asia-Pacific for organizing this hearing at this crucial juncture when my country, Burma, is facing a national calamity of an unprecedented nature in its modern history. The whole country and the people of Burma overseas are mourning for the millions of people affected by Cyclone Nargis when the storm hit the densely populated areas in Lower Burma on 2-3 May.

The recent cyclone has killed tens of thousands and ravaged homes, farms, and infrastructures leaving a lasting imprint of destruction which will take months, if not years, for the millions of survivors to recover from. Even though the death toll cannot be confirmed with certainty yet, the estimation so far is that over 100,000 people are dead or missing -- 40 percent of whom are believed to be children -- and nearly 1.5-2.5 million people will suffer from the consequences of the cyclone.

Even under such circumstances, the Burmese military junta has done very little to help the people. Its main focus since the cyclone had been to hold a national referendum so that a constitution it had written to legitimize military rule would pass. At the same time it is also preventing the international community from entering the country with the fear that the rigid control that it has imposed on the country will be undone by the presence of international relief experts. In many areas, local authorities are also preventing local donors from visiting the cyclone victims and insisting that relief aid distribution must only be done by the authorities. What is even worse is that reports are trickling out about the international aid being embezzled by the authorities.

The Burmese generals' short-sighted policy has worsened the situation for the cyclone victims who are now exposed to torrential rains and strong winds brought on by the onset of monsoon in Burma. The weather is also making aid distribution even more difficult to the tens of thousands of survivors who are now living either in makeshift camps or monasteries or in their exposed storm-damaged homes which are surrounded by water filled with debris, and corpses and carcasses of draft animals. The death toll has been rising and with more survivors facing starvation, water shortage, and waterborne diseases, it can only increase. Safe water, food, and medical care need to be urgently provided now. An international NGO working inside Burma estimated that 30,000 children are starving and the under-fives living in the Irrawaddy Delta, who were already "acutely malnourished" when the cyclone hit Burma, might be dying from lack of food.

News agencies are also reporting that even in accessible areas like Kungyangon in the outskirts of Rangoon Division, men, women and children were standing in the mud and rain for miles alongside the road begging for scraps of food or clothing from an occasional passing aid vehicle. Tens of thousands of cyclone refugees are now crammed into monasteries and schools and most being fed and watered by local volunteers and private donors.

Our concern is that we are missing opportunities to help the victims and are risking more lives. Deaths this time around will not be from natural disasters but because of the xenophobic policies of the Burmese generals who are hindering international efforts. The situation is totally unacceptable and it must not be allowed to continue indefinitely.

Even though the Burmese generals have been dragging their foot, the international community has been responding very quickly. UN member nations have pledged US 79 million dollars to complement the 20 million dollars from the UN Natural Disaster Relief Fund to help Burma thanks to the flash appeal by the undersecretary for humanitarian affairs. UN humanitarian agencies and international humanitarian NGOs have mobilized their human and financial resources and are ready to go in. But, experts with relief expertise and experience from Western countries are being denied visas to enter the country. The junta, however, has allowed some international relief aid to be flown in and some Asian relief teams from nearby countries to enter the country. But the gestures are far too little given the magnitude of the problem the country is facing and they are attempts to ease international pressure and not genuine steps to help the people.

We have seen reports of naval ships from France and the United Kingdom loaded with food, medicines, safe water, speedboats, and helicopters arriving in the proximity of Burmese waters and preparing to help the cyclone victims. USS Essex and its battle group are also said to have been waiting to join in the relief efforts. U.S marine flights to Rangoon from their makeshift headquarters in Thailand's U-Tapao are continuing and a total of 500,000 pounds of aid were said to have been delivered. Negotiations to allow helicopters to fly directly to the disaster zone are being stalled and relief missions by French and British naval fleets are also waiting for permission from the Burmese military.

Information we are receiving from inside Burma indicates that effective distribution of aid is not in place yet two weeks after the cyclone. Access to the cyclone hit areas by the UN agencies and international humanitarian NGOs workers is still very challenging and many are still stranded in Bangkok waiting for visa. Meanwhile, the military regime has also been restricting the travel of non-Burmese staffs from UN agencies and INGOs already in Rangoon because the junta's Prime Minister Thein Sein has issued a "No foreigner, no camera" order to all military checkpoints.

Only Burmese staffs are allowed to travel to the cyclone hit areas. Even though the Burmese workers are willing and full of goodwill and compassion, they are sadly lacking in numbers and expertise. They are also not in the position to override local authorities when there is a need to make immediate decisions.

Community Initiative
The assistance regularly reaching cyclone victims so far have been from private donors, Buddhist monks, and celebrities. The National League for Democracy has also formed a natural disaster relief committee and starting to distribute rice, drinking water and clothing to cyclone victims through its network and NLD members, like others, are also encountering restrictions and interferences from time to time. Many incidents of local officials using authority to take over relief aid packages have frequently been reported.

People have been sending word to us to help them regardless of the means involved.

Rice Production and Food Security
The five regions struck by cyclone are predominantly agriculture zones where agriculture families producing 65 percent of the country's rice are living. The cyclone has now flooded rice fields with sea water and destroyed rice mills and storages as well as the salt and fishing industries (boats, fishing nets and storages). Farmers have also lost rice hoarded for family consumption, seed grains needed for the replanting season, as well as all their draft animals. The Food and Agriculture Organization has said that more than 20 percent of rice paddies in the cyclone-hit area were destroyed. Embankments and irrigation systems which form an intricate system critical to the success of rice crops have all been demolished and an enormous amount of work involving people who are grieving, homeless, and weak from hunger is needed to restore the destroyed infrastructures.

International agencies have time and again been warning that time is running out fast and if rice seed grains are not received within the next 40 to 50 days, planting will not happen in time for the harvesting this year and Burma will be subjected to the risk of famine if the agriculture system is not restored.

Abusing Aid
There have been reports of junta-appointed relief personnel abusing aid given by the international community as well as local donors.

In Bogale, a volunteer aid relief worker said local officials refused a private donor bringing in a truckload of relief goods. They demanded "one third" of whatever was on the truck as their share before the truck was allowed in.

In Insein, there was an incident of local authorities posing for the media with large quantities of rice and potatoes being distributed. But when the actual distribution is made, a cyclone victim is only given a potato and two cans of rice.

At the Kyongyi shelter for cyclone victims in Twante, a relief aid of three bags of rice, 1,000 eggs, two crates of tomatoes, two boxes of cigarettes, and two boxes of Thai instant noodles, Yum Yum, were donated to the cyclone victims in the name of Minister Soe Tha. After the minister left the area, two firefighters arrived at the shelter asking for half of what the minister had donated, saying that the share would go to the local authorities. The cyclone refugees refused to hand over the relief goods complaining that they did not receive any supplies donated by the minister when he came the first time round.

Incidents similar to the examples above are taking place everywhere. Under the situation, the Burmese generals have pledged to investigate any misuse of relief aid meant for cyclone victims and vowed to take tough action.

The only problem with that promise is finding people who will lead the investigations. Official corruption, from the lower echelons up, is widespread and appointing investigating officials, particularly at the grassroots, will not work because it is these very officials who are abusing relief aid.


The current flow of aid is way below what is needed to effectively save lives and relieve and rehabilitate cyclone victims. The amount of aid being delivered now [but not effectively distributed yet] is just one third of what is needed for the 1.6 to 2.5 millions of people affected by the cyclone. The military junta must open up every air, sea and land routes available to bring in a massive flow of aid to prevent deaths resulting from starvation and diseases.

Relief operations urgently need helicopters, speedboats, and shallow-water vessels. The infrastructure in place is insufficient to distribute international aid effectively to the needy. No modern facilities to unload relief goods from cargo planes exist. Roads have been damaged and ships only have limited access in the Irrawaddy Delta.

A coordination mechanism is needed by the international community to ensure transparency and accountability. The UN Secretary-General has proposed a coordinating mechanism involving the UN and ASEAN. That mechanism also needs to be set up inside Burma and must involve major donor nations like the United States and EU countries. The military regime's relief committees established with local authorities and Union Solidarity and Development Association members are the current source of the relief problems: Relief aid from international organizations are relabeled as being given by the generals and/or ministers, relief goods are being replaced with defective or poor quality products, and relief goods are being stolen and sold in the local markets.

International humanitarian experts, medical, and engineering teams are urgently needed to be on the ground now. Visa waiver for these relief officials, delivery and clearance of relief goods must be expedited, and free access must be given to disaster zones.

UN agencies and INGOs should work with local voluntary and civil society organizations as partners. Financial resources and technical skills should be extended and these informal civil society organizations should be empowered.

France took the initiative of seeking support from the UN Security Council to invoke the doctrine of responsibility to protect and we are grateful for that. Russia and China have consistently been opposing all efforts to get the international community to assist in Burma. The junta's supremo Than Shwe has not been receiving phone calls from UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon who we understand will try to go to Burma this week. Thai Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej conveyed a letter from the UN Secretary-General but failed to convince the junta to receive humanitarian experts.

With diplomatic options quickly exhausting but urgent need for international aid growing in Burma, we believe that it is time for the international community to intervene to protect the distressed people of Burma.

What is obvious is that since the Burmese generals are willing to risk the lives of the people by preventing international humanitarian aid to be delivered to them, it has become the responsibility of nations and international agencies to rescue the needy in Burma regardless of the decision of the generals.

This can be done by nations with the right capabilities joining forces to enter Burma and save the lives of the millions who are at risk. Like minded countries can form an "International Coalition of Mercy" which will wholeheartedly be welcomed by an overwhelming majority of people of Burma, including the rank and file in the military. Since the Coalition is there to save lives and with the popular support of the people of Burma, we do not foresee China extending military support to the junta to counter the move. Besides, China is currently occupied with the recent earthquake disaster and the Olympic Games will not risk damaging its image or causing tension by siding with the Burmese generals whom the Chinese leaders know are way beyond redemption.

We, therefore, call for urgent humanitarian intervention by an international coalition of nations willing to help Burma. Diplomatic initiatives can be pursued following the entry into Burma by the coalition. Intervention not diplomacy needs to come first under the circumstances.

Analysis of the SPDC’s Referendum

The Burmese generals, ignoring widespread human suffering caused by cyclone Nargis and rejecting the appeal of the UN Secretary-General went ahead with the constitutional referendum in the midst of the humanitarian crisis. The referendum was held in the whole country on 10 May with the exception of townships affected by the cyclone in Rangoon and Irrawaddy Divisions.

The international community already knows about the flaws in the referendum law and the military's utilization of the state machinery, resources, and media as well as the use of intimidation, harassment, arrest, and physical attacks to ensure that the proposed constitution is approved by the referendum.

Even before the referendum was held, public service personnel and members of the armed forces, the Union Solidarity and Development Association, fire brigade and the national Red Cross were told that since they might have to travel on duty on the day of referendum, they needed to vote in advance. All these voters were made either to vote in the presence of or to hand over their completed ballot cards to the authorities, leading them without option but to support the constitution. The advanced voting took place in army battalions, government offices, and state-owned factories through out the country in April and May.

We have been monitoring the referendum and the following are some of our observations:

• The general atmosphere on 10 May was quite different from that of the general elections in 1990. People then were enthusiastic and long queues could be seen at the polling stations as people were eager to vote. A festive mood prevailed then because people believed that their votes would bring about democratic changes in Burma. Not too many voters were at the polling stations this time round and at times, there were more guards than voters. People had looks of anger, fear and desperation without displaying any enthusiasm. Team members report about many polling stations closing early around 11:00 am even though the official closing time is only at 04:00 pm.

• Even though the referendum law and rules and regulations governing polling station officials were promulgated by the military government, there were blatant violations of these legal rulings.

• Polling station officials in many areas were local authorities. Furthermore, members of the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Association and/or National Red Cross Society who were not official polling station staffs were deployed around poll stations. From time to time, they were seen to be accompanying voters into the polling booths and guiding them to vote "Yes".

• In many regions, local authorities went house to house the night before the referendum to collect advanced votes from the local people. Voters were forced to tick ‘yes’ on the ballot in their presence. Polling stations were closed early and those came to vote were asked to either vote at the offices of the local authorities or return home because their votes had already been collected in advance.

• Local authorities retained national identity cards and bank books from farmers (the bank books are needed for borrowing agricultural loans from government banks). The IDs and banks were returned to the farmers only after they had ticked "yes"" on the ballot cards in the presence of the local authorities at the local Peace and Development Council offices.

• Polling station staff members were seen handing out ballot papers that had already been checked in favor the constitution. Voters were compelled to sign to register their presence and their pre-voted ballot cards placed into ballot boxes in front of authorities.

• In some areas only one member of the household was asked to come to the polling station and forced to vote "yes" for all eligible voters in the family.

• Local authorities went around village/town announcing through loudspeakers that those who voted against the constitution would face legal action and imprisonment of up to 3 years and a fine of 10,000 Kyats. Misinformation campaign about such legal action was launched in some regions to create fear among the uneducated and not well informed people in rural areas.

• In many areas, NLD members insisted on joining the vote counting process as observers as required by law but they were denied. Heated arguments ensued and NLD members filed official complaints to the higher level referendum sub-commissions about the violation of referendum law and regulations.

• Thakin Soe Myint, chairman of the Rangoon Division NLD Organizing Committee, and Joint Secretary Dr. Myo Aung were prevented from traveling to Hmawbi, Taikkyi and Tantabin Townships to observe the referendum. They were stopped by police at a tollgate near Hmawbi and forced to return to Rangoon without giving any reason. Three NLD youth members who informally observed the referendum were also arrested.

• The referendum organized on 10 May was neither free nor fair and it violated all internationally accepted norms. The Burmese military and its agents manipulated the process using all available means. The Burmese generals are expected to announce an "overwhelming" result in their favor which was achieved through extensive fraudulent practices.

US Policy on Burma

The military junta has announced that its constitution has been approved by the referendum and the process to legitimize military is already in the works. We foresee even greater political instability in the coming months as people are bound to be frustrated with the worsening socioeconomic crisis caused by the effect of cyclone Nargis and the regime’s lack of regard for human suffering. Given the fact that the referendum did not reflect the will of the people since it was methodically manipulated by the military, I strongly urge the United States to reject the outcome of referendum and the military junta's constitution.

The United States has always been one of the strongest supporters of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the Burmese democracy movement and is consistent in its unwavering support for the efforts to bring about peaceful democratic transition and national reconciliation in Burma. The people of Burma have always been grateful to the United States for its support.

I would like to appeal to the United States to continue taking the lead at the international level, effectively coordinating with United Nations, the European Union and ASEAN to push for speedy democratic reforms in Burma and a UN Security Council resolution whenever possible. The United States is also urged to help the people of Burma in the following policy areas:

Increase Pressure on the Regime and Taking a Lead in Mobilizing Policies toward Burma: US Government should take new policy initiatives in addition to existing policy measures such as the strengthening of banking and financial sanctions targeting family members of the regime and their business cronies until a negotiated political settlement for a complete transition to democratic regime becomes irreversible.
Greater US initiative, engaging with China, India, and ASEAN: Since neighboring countries like China, India, and ASEAN are a concern because of their lenient and friendly policies toward the Burmese regime, U.S. Administration and congressional leaders are requested to continue bringing Burma issue to the fore in bilateral talks with China, India, and ASEAN as well as at ASEAN post ministerial meetings and ASEAN Regional Forum.

Increased humanitarian assistance: In response to the humanitarian crisis in Burma, US Government is requested to increase humanitarian assistance to the people of Burma, including the delivery of aid across borders to refugees and IDPs, through credible international NGOs and informal civil society groups. Strengthening the capacity of informal civil society groups can be done by Burmese exile groups which can organize short term courses, workshops, exposure trips and internship program with experienced NGOs in neighboring countries.

Taking a Holistic Approach to Cooperation in Drug Eradication: US Government is urged not to de-link drug cooperation from the larger policy goal of promoting democracy in Burma since drug problems in Burma will remain unresolved until the underlying political and economic problems are settled in a democratic way.

Empowerment of the Burmese Democratic Forces: Leading Burmese democratic forces like the NLD and the government in exile, National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma, place high importance on preparations toward post-military transition in Burma and the United States is asked to increase support to the democratic forces in strengthening their efforts for the restoration of democratic governance, national reconciliation, and civil society in Burma.

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