Toward Democracy, Human Rights and Federalism

Friday, February 3, 2012

Victims of Nargis Still Need Our Help

Thursday, May 14 2009, 12:21 AM EDT

In the "Opinion Section of The Canberra Times - Page 11 (12 May 2009)
by Thaung Htun

A year ago this month, cyclone Nargis found life in the Bay of Bengal before sweeping with devastating force across southeastern Burma. Around 140,000 people perished as entire villages were flattened and whole communities wiped out.

Around 800,000 Burmese lost their homes and 2.4 million people were severely affected by outbreaks of disease, lack of food and water and limited shelter.

Despite the best efforts of many, especially the Burmese themselves, the international nongovernment organisations and donor community, a great deal still needs to be done to aid Burma's recovery. At the same time, many influential governments are considering ongoing policy options for Burma.

More international engagement with Burma is required.

As is well documented, the military regime's top-down approach ensured that human rights and safety were, and continue to be, sacrificed in the name of dogma and that truth is hidden behind walls of ideology. It was more concerned to push ahead with its sham referendum to bolster its risible Roadmap to Democracy than it was in ensuring that recovery efforts were adequate. Cyclone victims were herded into voting booths and intimidated to vote in favour of the regime within a day or two of their near devastation.

The response by local NGOs and volunteer groups, as well as by expatriate Burmese was extraordinary, especially given that many were risking harassment and imprisonment by the authorities. It is surely one of the lessons of Nargis that for Burma to move towards a democratic transition, its civil sector needs more support and assistance.

Burma's civil society is the key to its recovery, and policy makers might make better use of its remarkable benefits in generating and maintaining a prosperous and democratic society in Burma.

Global climate changes have put Burma at risk, raising the possibility that another Nargis like storm can hit the country again.

But, we have yet to hear any concrete action being taken to make the country prepared for such natural disasters.

One year later, there are still not enough emergency shelters. Much more needs to be done to restore the livelihood of villages in Nargis affected areas. Farmers, for example, the backbone of the Burmese economy, have no access to credit for the coming rice growing season.

In contrast to levels of international aid made available after the Asian Tsunami in 2004, the resources released by international donors in the wake of Nargis seem limited. Some hundreds of millions of dollars is still required to enable the recovery phase to continue.

Perhaps it is simple case of ''out-of- sight-out-of-mind'' or perhaps it is due to the widespread reluctance to help a regime that is, according to reports, sitting on up to $US4 billion ($US5.2 billion) in foreign reserves.

Whatever the cause of this relative inaction, the transparency and accountability mechanism of the Tripartite Core Group – the post-recovery body jointly administered by the United Nations, ASEAN and the Burmese regime – must be improved.

International donors as well as journalists should have free access to Nargis-affected areas to observe the work of TCG on recovery efforts as well as to listen to the voice of the people. The human and financial resources of the community should be fully utilised and mobilised. More space for civil society participation ought to be provided.

Finally, state/civil society relations must improve. Social activists who had been arrested and sentenced for long prison terms must be immediately released and allowed to play a role in the recovery and reconstruction efforts.

The grievances of ordinary Burmese people should be addressed and a proper complaints mechanism established. For instance, villagers at Ziphyugon Village in Twante have complained about the Myanmar National Red Cross's discrimination in building new houses for cyclone victims. The junta has ensured that those who complained publicly about their plight have lost their land and their homes.

For many of the victims of Cyclone Nargis, whom we continue to mourn as this first anniversary passes, change may come too late. But, should the lessons learnt by the international community in how to better deal with Burma – and other such recalcitrant regimes – lead to real reform, then perhaps anniversaries in future may ring a much-needed note of hope.

@ Dr Thaung Htun is the UN Office Representative of the National Coalition Government, Burma's government in exile.

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