CYCLONE NARGIS RELIEF EFFORTS AND THE BLOCKING OF FOREIGN AID BY MYANMAR MILITARY REGIME

CYCLONE NARGIS RELEIF

Kavi Chongkittavorn wrote in The Nation: “When the Nargis Cyclone hit Burma on May 1, 2008, the regime was slow in responding to the wide-spread calamity. At that time, there was no plan to accept international assistance or admit foreign relief officials. The junta leaders feared with outside help, foreign powers would interfere with domestic affairs and even topple them. [Source: Kavi Chongkittavorn, The Nation November 8, 2010]

An estimated 2.4 million people were in urgent need of food, water and shelter, aid agencies said. Associated Press reported: “Aid agencies prepared a wide-range of relief supplies including material for temporary shelters, rice, drinking water, kitchen utensils and medicines, including 2,000 anti-snake bite kits.The World Health Organization said an increase in snake bites was feared in coming days. U.N. agencies and other voluntary groups have been able to reach only 270,000 of the affected people.

Osamu Kunii, UNICEF's chief of health and nutrition, said the situation in Myanmar was worse in some ways than the situation after the 2004 tsunami that killed over 220,000 people in Asia because more people suffered severe injuries from strong winds, high tides and flooding. And he noted that after the tsunami, food and water could be obtained from inland areas that were not hit by the killer waves. "This time it is quite difficult because most of the areas are quite remote and difficult to access," Kunii said. "We are trying our best." [Source: Margie Mason, AP, August 2008]

Relief efforts were slowed for political reasons as Burma's military rulers initially resisted large-scale international aid. Associated Press reported: Myanmar's xenophobic military regime left survivors to largely fend for themselves. It barred foreigners from the delta until last week and refused entry to U.S. and French naval vessels, which have been off the country's coast, laden with aid. The junta's response was in stark contrast to that of Indonesia's Aceh province during the 2004 tsunami and Pakistan during the 2005 earthquake. Both countries opened the doors to hundred of international aid groups and set aside their suspicions to allow American troops to ferry aid and help evacuate survivors from remote areas. [Source: Associated Press June 3, 2008 ++]

“Stories continue to emerge of survivors going days without food or being forced to drink from dirty canals. The Associated Press has interviewed survivors in recent days who still have not received any government or international assistance and turned to the country's revered monks for help. Human rights groups have also accused Myanmar's military rulers of kicking homeless cyclone survivors out of schools and monasteries and sending them back to villages as part of an effort to restore the country's devastated agriculture sector. "It's unconscionable for Burma's generals to force cyclone victims back to their devastated homes," said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "Claiming a 'return to normalcy' is no basis for returning people to greater misery and possible death." ++

Hampering the relief efforts, only ten days after the cyclone, nearby central China was hit by a massive earthquake, known as the Sichuan earthquake which measured 7.9 in magnitude and it alone had taken 87,476 lives. Furthermore, some donated aid items were found to be available in the country's black market, and Burma's junta warned on May 15 that legal action would be taken against people who traded or hoarded international aid. [Source: Wikipedia]

Difficulty Providing Aid After Cyclone Nargis

A big obstacle in providing relief has been reaching the delta. With only seven government helicopters flying, relief supplies are mostly being transported along dirt roads and then by boat. Boats able to navigate the debris-filled canals are also scarce and efforts to import trucks and other vehicles have been hampered by government red tape. "Not only don't they have the capacity to deliver assistance, they don't have experience," Mark Farmaner, the British aid worker, told AP. "It's already too late for many people. Every day of delays is costing thousands of lives." [Source: Associated Press, May 10, June 3 2008]

Alexander G. Higgins of Associated Press wrote: “No helicopters. Almost no boats. Floods and fallen trees on the roads. Many obstacles are keeping relief workers from reaching most of the hundreds of thousands of people who are without food or safe drinking water in cyclone-devastated Myanmar, organizers said. "We are simply lacking transportation. There are almost no boats and no helicopters. This is really a nightmare to make this operation run," said Anders Ladekarl, secretary-general of the Danish Red Cross. [Source: Alexander G. Higgins, Associated Press, May 9, 2008 /<>\]

“Myanmar has only a few dozen helicopters and most are small and old, according to "The Military Balance 2008," a widely recognized assessment on armaments around the world. The country also has about 15 transport planes but most are small jets not able to carry hundreds of tons of supplies, said Andrew Brookes, an aerospace specialist at the IISS, an independent think tank. /<>\

“Carsten Voelz, Geneva-based operations manager for CARE International, said his agency was using supplies it already had in Myanmar and was planning to bring in more, but had yet to request permission from the government to receive a shipment. "It's going OK for us because we are basically working in the areas where we working before the disaster," Voelz told The Associated Press. "So we have established relationships, communities know us, so we have access to those places." /<>\

“He said that CARE on Thursday distributed water to 10,000 people and food to 15,000 and has started distribution of 50,000 "family kits" containing cooking supplies and other essentials. If allowed to expand, Voelz said, "we will need to scale up significantly in country and hire a lot more Burmese staff." James East, a Bangkok-based spokesman for World Vision, said his agency has been distributing water, rice, clothing and other supplies in the Yangon area. "We've got tents, tarpaulins, water, sanitation kits, pills, there are some medicines, water-purification units -- that kind of basic stuff you need when you've lost everything," East said. /<>\

Compounding the logistics challenges has been a shortage of foreign experts in the field. It has resulted in a chaotic and uneven aid effort, with charity groups complaining it has nearly impossible to asses needs of survivors or set up systems that are normally in place by now to provide clean water and sanitation. The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies is still waiting for government approval to send six foreign experts into the field to help run its water treatment facilities. Until now, it has been able to provide only 5,000 people each day with clean water. "It was much easier to get medical supplies, clean water, engineers and psychological consultants into the field in Aceh within the first month," IFRC spokesman France Hurtubise said. "Human resources and expertise remain a challenge in Myanmar." [Source: Associated Press, June 3 2008]

Myanmar’s Military Junta Blocks and Slows Aid and Relief

Alexander G. Higgins of Associated Press wrote: “As aid agencies awaited government clearance for more aid shipments, staff and transport, the U.N. said Myanmar's government seized two planeloads of food and supplies and would not let its experts into the country. The government said it had taken control of the supplies to distribute them itself. The U.N. always requires experienced aid workers to accompany relief supplies in every recipient country until they are delivered, officials said. "Those are the rules," said Elisabeth Byrs, spokeswoman for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. "We have to be accountable to our donors in the states that paid for this assistance and we have to be transparent. We have to be sure the aid is reaching the victims." [Source: Alexander G. Higgins, Associated Press, May 9, 2008 /<>\]

“Many relief agencies, including the Red Cross, were able to get a quick start on the operation because they already had operations in the country. But they have run into problems with slow government approval of new aid shipments and refusal to admit additional staff. Governments have sent their own planeloads of aid, but there was little sign of the shipments, Ladekarl said Friday after his arrival in Yangon, the country's largest city. "I got through an airport that normally would be full of emergency relief planes and a lot of relief. There was only one little plane," said Ladekarl, who already had a visa to visit Myanmar before the storm hit. /<>\

"We've seen the scale of the destruction and the suffering is huge," said Hugues Robert, head of Medecins Sans Frontieres emergency operations in Geneva. "But we will not be able to address these urgent needs without the necessary additional supplies and the arrival of more experienced emergency staff, particularly experts in water and sanitation." MSF, also known as Doctors Without Borders, had 40 foreign workers and 1,000 local volunteers in Myanmar before the cyclone, and they have all been redeployed to help in the recovery effort with the permission of national authorities, said Fred Baldini in the organization's Geneva office. "There has been no problem," he said. But MSF has not received visas for additional aid workers to arrive from abroad. /<>\

U Ko Ko wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun: “may victims refuse to be interviewed because government authorities are watching them. Some complain that aid, especially food, was being stolen by authorities. They claim officials distribute less than donors provide and that some have substituted good quality rice for poor quality rice.”

Lack of Aid for Victims of Cyclone Nargis

Emergency assistance reached fewer than half of the disasters victims. Aye Shew, a 52-year-old survivor said, “I have no hope aid will come. Associated Press reported: “One month after the devastating cyclone hit Myanmar, the United Nations said that more than 1 million survivors were still without basic relief. The groups say they still faced government delays in sending disaster experts and vital equipment into the country. The hurdles have resulted in only a trickle of the necessary aid reaching the storm's estimated 2.4 million survivors, and left the relief efforts unable to move beyond providing the most immediate needs. [Source: Associated Press, June 3 2008 ++]

"People need basic relief, which is shocking after four weeks," said Sarah Ireland, the regional director of Oxfam, a U.K.-based humanitarian agency that is still trying to gain permission to work in Myanmar. "If we were in a normal response by week four, those affected should be working toward recovery," she said Monday. "They would be in a position perhaps to think about what they need to restart their lives. But we know people on the ground don't have food to eat." ++

"There remains a serious lack of sufficient and sustained humanitarian assistance for the affected populations," the United Nations said in its latest assessment report. It said the world body also lacked "a clear understanding of the support being provided by the Government of Myanmar to its people." Aid groups were still unable to reach 1.3 million of the 2.4 million survivors with sufficient food and clean water, while trying to prevent a second wave of deaths from malnutrition and disease, the U.N. said. And of the million getting help, most have been "reached with inconsistent levels of assistance," it said. ++

Cyclone Nargis and Myanmar’s Junta

The Los Angeles Times reported: “The regime's English- language newspaper, the New Light of Myanmar, praised the country's leader, Senior Gen. Than Shwe, for staying away from damaged areas for two weeks after the storm hit. It said his "farsightedness and genuine goodwill" let relief efforts proceed faster without him. hen he did go, his "warm words of encouragement . . . made downhearted victims happy," according to the report. "While watching the news and scenes of the Senior General cordially greeting the victims on TV, we, all the people, were pleased with the efforts of the government. But in the cities, millions have heard from foreign radio broadcasts and Internet news sites that weren't yet blocked by the regime that the generals had refused to allow tons of aid on U.S., French and British warships to be brought ashore. [Source: Los Angeles Times, June 13, 2008 <>]

“And they know that soldiers have forced people into trucks and dumped them back in ruined villages, and that despite promises to ease restrictions on entry to the country, their rulers are delaying the arrival of foreign experts and life-saving equipment. More than a month after the cyclone, the government continues to deny unhindered access to the disaster zone for foreign experts, such as medical and water-purification teams, threatening thousands of lives, especially those of children, pregnant women and the elderly, the United Nations and other agencies say. <>

“Myanmar's military regime is suspicious of outsiders, fearing they are spies or that their presence could expose the fallacy of the government's claim to be an all-powerful provider of development and stability. In the cyclone's aftermath, the regime was so determined to keep prying eyes from a landscape littered with corpses and people begging for help that it set up checkpoints on the main roads into the Irrawaddy River delta, which took the brunt of the storm. The names and passport details of those caught were recorded before the vehicles were turned back. Local people accompanying them were interrogated. <>

Hannah Beech wrote in Time: “One place that the cyclone spared was Burma's new administrative capital, Naypyidaw, which was carved out of the jungle by the ruling junta in 2005. Burmese civil servants who had to move from Rangoon to the new capital were given no explanation for the shift. But some local journalists in Rangoon speculated that junta leader Than Shwe had been swayed by soothsayers who predicted that civil unrest and a natural disaster would soon strike the city of roughly 5 million. In September, the monk-led protests made the first part of the prophecy come true; the cyclone fulfilled the second half. Holed up in their jungle capital, the generals escaped the wrath of the cyclone. "People I've spoken to back in Burma say they're angry at two things," says Aung Zaw, the Irrawaddy editor. "First, they're angry at the military for reacting so slowly. And second, they're angry at the cyclone for missing Naypyidaw." The long-suffering Burmese can only hope that divine intervention will not be so kind to the generals next time. [Source: Hannah Beech, Time, May 8, 2008]

Than Shwe and Cyclone Nargis

Maggie Farley wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “In the hours after Tropical Cyclone Nargis ravaged Myanmar, U.N. officials tried to call the country's top leader to offer help. For several days, they got no answer and wondered whether Senior Gen. Than Shwe had gone into hiding, or even fled the storm-battered country. Finally, the real reason became clear: Than Shwe didn't really want their help. A week after the cyclone swept the Irrawaddy River delta, Than Shwe made his first appearance -- not to comfort the victims of the country's worst storm in living memory, but to vote on a referendum enshrining the government's power. Instead of reassuring people that he was in control, the TV footage of him shakily walking to the ballot box with an aide at his elbow reinforced rumors that he is seriously ill, exiled activists said. [Source: Maggie Farley, Los Angeles Times, May 23, 2008 ** ]

“The images also captured the core reasons behind Than Shwe's compulsive grip on power. With several top rulers in failing health and a constitutional redistribution of power underway, the regime is in a fragile generational and structural transition, which makes the leadership extremely wary about any challenge or change from outside or below. And in the last 10 months, army officers and soldiers have been experiencing sacrifice close to home. The cyclone struck some of the same population at the center of the protests last year: the Bamar ethnic group, which makes up most of the military. **

“Disgruntled officers have complained about the government to exile publications, a rare and risky step. That means the regime has been facing a post-cyclone dilemma, analysts say: It can open up the delta to foreign aid groups and risk outside influence seeping in. Or it can risk more deaths from disease by keeping the area largely closed, which may cause many in the military to question the legitimacy of a leadership that doesn't take care of its own people. Clapp, the former U.S. chief of mission, said Than Shwe may be an absolute ruler, but the government is not monolithic. "I don't think the government can be toppled," she said. "I think it will morph into something over time, a negotiated transition with the military." **

Military’s Constitution Referendum Goes On Despite Cyclone Nargis

Myanmar’s ruling junta decided go ahead with its constitutional referendum on May 10, 2008 in spite of the fact the country had been devastated by powerful cyclone Nargis, which left thousands dead. France 24 reported: Myanmar’s “official newspaper “New Light of Myanmar” confirmed that the referendum, the first of its kind after 18 years, would take place as planned. The decision angered a large part of the Burmese population. “We hardly have anything to eat, and they want to send us to vote!” exclaimed an irate Burmese citizen, affected by the cyclone, said. [Source: Cyril Payen, France 24, May 5, 2008 ::]

France 24 “qualifies the junta’s decision as “surrealist” at a time when “half the population is completely cut off from the world.” Furthermore, the junta is reported to have warned the population against abstention. The military said that “there should be at least one vote per home”, failing which the head of the family could face six months in prison. With a wind speed between 190 and 240 km/h, the cyclone hit Burma’s south-western coast before spreading eastward. The most severe damages were caused at the Irrawaddy coastline. Burma’s largest city Rangoon was also affected. ::

Seth Mydans wrote in the New York Times, “In the midst of disaster, ballot boxes. As foreign aid groups bang on the door in an attempt to deliver disaster relief, the generals who run Myanmar have a priority of their own, a constitutional referendum. The constitution is central to the generals' political battle plans - "life and death" for the highest leaders, in the words of one Burmese analyst. "To approve the state constitution is the national duty of the entire people," the state-run New Light of Myanmar said in a front-page headline Friday. "Let us all cast 'yes' votes in the nation's interest," the newspaper declared. [Source: Seth Mydans, New York Times, May 9, 2008 <<]

“One of the first official announcements after the cyclone struck, killing tens of thousands of people and leaving close to a million homeless, was that the referendum would proceed as planned. Since then, the government has relented a bit, postponing the vote for two weeks in 47 townships in the worst-hit areas, where some villages were obliterated by the storm. The junta's plan to go ahead with the vote while restricting the delivery of disaster aid from the United Nations and other relief agencies has drawn widespread criticism and amazement. Almost a week after the cyclone, Myanmar continued to block all but a trickle of foreign aid, barring large-scale deliveries by the World Food Program and other United Nations relief agencies. <<

“As one analyst noted, some of the same soldiers who could be rescuing survivors are likely to be dispatched instead to guard polling places and help carry out the balloting. "It is one of the best examples of the disregard for the people by the military," said the analyst, Josef Silverstein an expert on Myanmar at Rutgers University. <<

First Wave of Cyclone Aid Arrives

Bangladesh, which has had experience with cyclones in the past, was one of the first countries to supply aid to Burma in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis. Two planes carrying aid, organized by the Bangladesh Army, were sent to Burma on May 8, 2008. They carried stockpiles of emergency aid and hundreds of aid workers with experience in coping with the aftermath of a cyclone. India, one of the few countries which maintains close relations with Burma, launched Operation Sahayata under which two Indian Navy ships and two Indian Air Force (IAF) aircraft supplied the first international relief material to the cyclone-hit country. The two aircraft carried 4 tonnes of relief supplies each while the Indian Navy transported more than 100 tonnes of relief material. On May 8, the IAF dispatched its third air consignment carrying over 32 tonnes of relief material including tents, blankets and medicines. As of 16 May 2008, India's offer to send a team of 50 medical personnel to set up two independent mini-hospitals in the Irrawaddy delta was accepted by the Burmese government.

On May 12, Associated Press reported: The United States delivered its first relief supplies to Burma. The U.S. military C-130 cargo plane, packed with 14 tons of supplies, flew out of the Thai air force base of Utapao and landed in Rangoon, capping prolonged negotiations to persuade Burma's military government to accept U.S. help. Also two planes carrying 56 tons of medical and other aid from Europe-based humanitarian groups also arrived in Rangoon. Medecins du Monde flew in 22 tons of aid, including emergency first aid kits and medicines to treat malaria and diarrhea. Medecins Sans Frontieres sent a charter plane carrying 34 tons of medical and logistical aid, with three more planes en route, but protested "growing restrictions" by Burma authorities on the movement of aid within the country. [Source: AP, May 12, 2008]

Though international assistance has started trickling in, the authoritarian government has barred most foreign experts who are experienced in managing humanitarian crises. Richard Horsey, a spokesman for U.N. humanitarian operations, in Bangkok, Thailand, said clean drinking water, shelter, medical support and food were sorely lacking."The authorities of the country need to open up to an international relief effort. There aren't enough boats, trucks, helicopters in the country to run the relief effort of the scale we need," he said. "It's urgent that the authorities do open themselves up."

Myanmar Blocks U.N. Emergency Food Aid From Reaching Cyclone Victims

Around the time of the constitutional referendum voting, Associated Press reported: “Burma's isolationist regime blocked United Nations efforts to airlift urgently needed high-energy biscuits to cyclone survivors. Paul Risley, a spokesman of the U.N's World Food Program in Bangkok, said three flights were waiting to take off from Dubai, Dhaka and Thailand with 50 tons of biscuits. A fourth shipment aboard a scheduled Thai Airways cargo flight was likely to bring some biscuits later. He told The Associated Press that the WFP was in "constant touch" with the military junta to obtain the flight clearance for the first major airlift of international aid, but there has been no word from officials. A handful of smaller shipments from neighboring countries arrived earlier in the week. [Source: Associated Press, May 11, 2008 =|=]

“Risley said. "It is enough of a challenge that visas are being held up for bringing in experience international relief workers, but it is specially frustrating that critically needed food aid is being held up.” Burma's state television Thursday showed Prime Minister Lt. Gen. Thein Sein distributing food packages to the sick and injured in the delta and soldiers dropping food over villages. The date of the distributions was not given. Indian navy vessels and planes from Japan, Thailand, Singapore and Laos and Bangladesh had arrived in recent days with medicine, candles, instant noodles, raincoats and other relief supplies, the television said. State radio said "unscrupulous elements" in Yangon were spreading rumors of an impending earthquake, a second cyclone and looting in the country's largest city. Residents say that some looting did occur at markets and stores after the storm hit. =|=

“It appeared the regime was trying both to calm the population and stop any gatherings that might turn into political agitation against widely detested military rule. Although most Yangon residents were preoccupied in trying to restore their lives in wake of the storm, activists using the cover of an almost total power outage have scribbled fresh graffiti on the city's overpasses. =|=

A few shops reopened in the Irrawaddy delta, but they were quickly overwhelmed by desperate people, said Risley, quoting his agency's workers in the area. "Fistfights are breaking out," he said. A Yangon resident who returned to the city from the delta area said people were drinking coconut water because there was no safe drinking water. He said many people were on boats using blankets as sails. Some aid workers said heavily flooded areas were accessible only by boat, with helicopters unable to find dry spots for landing relief supplies. "Basically the entire lower delta region is under water," said Richard Horsey, the Thailand-based spokesman for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Aid. =|=

Myanmar’s Junta Seized U.N. Food and Puts Their Names on Foreign Aid

About a week after Cyclone Nargis hit, Reuters reported: “Myanmar’s junta impounded two U.N. food aid shipments at Yangon airport, officials said, triggering more outrage at the military government’s refusal to accept a major international relief operation. “We’re going to have to shut down our very small airlift operation until we get guarantees from the authorities,” a furious World Food Programme regional director Tony Banbury told CNN. The two shipments, 38 tonnes of high-energy biscuits, were enough to feed 95,000 people. “It should be on trucks headed to the victims. You’ve seen the conditions they are in. That food is now sitting on a tarmac doing no good,” Banbury said. Despite the desperate needs of the survivors, the generals are adamant that only they will distribute the emergency aid. [Source: Reuters, May 10, 2008 //\\]

“In a statement in the official media the foreign ministry said Myanmar would accept “relief in cash and kind” but not foreign aid workers. “Myanmar is not in a position to receive rescue and information teams from foreign countries at the moment,” the statement said. “But at present Myanmar is giving priority to receiving relief aid and distributing them to the storm-hit regions with its own resources.” The junta’s opponents have suggested the reason for the delays in letting aid workers come in could be that the generals did not want an influx of foreigners before Saturday’s referendum. //\\

Associated Press reported: “ Myanmar's military regime distributed international aid but plastered the boxes with the names of top generals in an apparent effort to turn the relief effort for last week's devastating cyclone into a propaganda exercise. State-run television continuously ran images of top generals including the junta leader, Senior Gen. Than Shwe handing out boxes of aid to survivors at elaborate ceremonies. One box bore the name of Lt. Gen. Myint Swe, a rising star in the government hierarchy, in bold letters that overshadowed a smaller label reading: "Aid from the Kingdom of Thailand." [Source: AP, May 10, 2008 \\\]

"We have already seen regional commanders putting their names on the side of aid shipments from Asia, saying this was a gift from them and then distributing it in their region," said Mark Farmaner, director of Burma Campaign UK, which campaigns for human rights and democracy in the country. "It is not going to areas where it is most in need," he said in London. \\\

So far, relief workers have reached 220,000 cyclone victims, only a small fraction of the number of people affected, the Red Cross said Friday. Three Red Cross aid flights loaded with shelter kits and other emergency supplies landed without incident. But the government seized two planeloads of high-energy biscuits enough to feed 95,000 people sent by the U.N. World Food Program. Despite the seizure, the WFP was sending three more planes Saturday from Dubai, Cambodia and Italy, even though those could be confiscated, too. \\\

Local People Provide Their Own Relief After Cyclone Nargis

About two keeks after Cyclone Nargis struck, Associated Press reported: “From shopkeepers handing out free rice porridge to medical students caring for the sick, ordinary people in Myanmar are stepping in to help cyclone victims as the military regime severely restricts international aid. Taxi drivers, factory owners, college students, teachers and other Yangon residents – many of whom lost their own homes – are among those organizing grueling trips into the Irrawaddy delta, the hardest-hit region. “They are true humanitarian heroes,” said Bridget Gardner, International Red Cross representative in Myanmar. They are taking up collections at businesses and donating food, clothes and water. Some who are too poor to give money or supplies are offering their labor to help clear debris and rebuild villages leveled by the May 3 cyclone. [Source: AP, May 15, 2008 >>]

“We feel sympathetic to the cyclone victims and want to help them in our own way,” said Daw Mya Win, who runs a small grocery in a northern Yangon suburb where many bamboo shanty houses were destroyed. The 49-year-old woman cooks rice porridge every day to feed anyone who comes. She also sends pots of the thick viscous mixture of rice, water and seasonings to some of the thousands of homeless who have sought shelter in the country's Buddhist monasteries. Others have taken refuge in Catholic churches where priests and nuns are caring for the hungry and homeless. “We totally depend on private donations every day for our daily meals,” said Aung Min, a 53-year-old man who has been staying at the Thaung Gyi monastery with his wife and three children since Cyclone Nargis struck. ..

Even the grass-roots efforts by Myanmar volunteers face obstacles. Many are stopped at military checkpoints and told to leave their supplies for soldiers to distribute. Rather than risking the aid never reaching the people who need it, some turn back. Others try to negotiate by offering a portion of the goods in exchange for passage. Zaw Htin, one of many volunteer medical students, returned from a frustrating trip Wednesday to one of the government refugee centers in the devastated delta town of Bogalay. “I am so angry. They don't want us to stay and talk to people. (The authorities) want us to leave the supplies with them for distribution,” she said. “But how can I treat the injured if I can't talk to them? How do we administer medical care if we can't touch them, feel their pulse or give them advice?” >>

Some international aid agencies are working through these webs themselves to keep their supplies moving and carrying out basic relief work, quickly training volunteers before dispatching them to the delta. Burmese-run aid groups also are playing an integral role in organizing and distributing supplies to survivors, as are businessmen. Some have offered diesel at subsidized prices to volunteers traveling to the delta, while others donate rice, water and water purification equipment. One shipping company offered to hand over two boats for floating clinics. >>

Some Burmese volunteers unable to find cars or fuel were visiting hard-hit slums on the outskirts of Yangon. College students went door-to-door handing out a few pennies to families for rice and gave sweets to impoverished children. Members of a hiking team from Yangon University gathered donations to take to the delta. “Since I don't have the means to provide cash or kind, I contribute labor by helping distribute relief goods,” said Nyi Nyi, a 21-year-old university student. “Whenever we distribute rice and clothing, I can see the faces of the cyclone victims light up. It is very rewarding to see them smile.”

After enduring decades of poverty and government oppression, Myanmar's people are known for their resilience, having learned to depend on each other from day to day – especially in times of crisis. “There's no question, people here are of Buddhist and Christian ethic and they have decided, 'We're just gonna do this,'” Tim Costello, president of World Vision-Australia said.

Monks Aid Survivors While Authorities Sell Rooftops

Wai Moe wrote in The Irrawaddy: “The survivors of tropical cyclone Nargis are trying to recover their lives and livelihoods almost without any help from the military government. However, Buddhist monks have emerged to come to the aid of many victims. Residents in Rangoon and the Irrawaddy delta town of Laputta who spoke to The Irrawaddy in the wake of the cyclone said that monks came out of their monasteries and offered assistance to survivors. “I saw monks in Rangoon, after the storm, distributing food to survivors,” a physician in the former capital said. “I also saw monks clearing up fallen trees and rebuilding houses.” [Source: Wai Moe, The Irrawaddy, May 7, 2008 *^*]

“A doctor in Laputta Township, one of the most seriously affected areas in the Irrawaddy delta, said that, after the storm, survivors went to monasteries for food and shelter because there was nowhere else providing aid. “Monks and young people in each town collected money and rice after the storm, and they cooked rice soup for the survivors,” he said. *^*

“While Buddhist monks were striving to save lives and aid survivors, the Burmese military authorities were attempting to prevent the monks from getting involved in relief efforts. Burmese military officials ordered monks not to use monasteries as safe houses for survivors and, according to journalists in Rangoon, the Ministry of Information ordered news agencies not to publish photographs of Buddhist monks aiding survivors, working in the streets or rebuilding homes. “The authorities won’t allow people to take refuge in monasteries,” a journalist in Rangoon said. “They will only permit people to shelter in schools. Even if the monks want to distribute water to survivors, they have to get permission from the authorities.” *^*

“State-run-newspapers and television have repeatedly shown images of high-ranking generals and officers helping survivors and handing out aid packages. However, many survivors in Rangoon have cast doubts on the state media’s reporting. “The newspapers said the ruling generals and troops encouraged and aided survivors,” a dentist in Rangoon told The Irrawaddy on Wednesday. “But this has quickly become a standing joke among people in Rangoon. We now say soldiers can only be seen in newspapersnowhere else. “My house was destroyed,” he added. “But I don’t see any officials coming to visit me.” *^*

“Meanwhile, local authorities in Rangoon began distributing tin roofing materials on Tuesday some three days after the disasterbut not for free. And first, rooftops were only being provided to those with military connections. “You are survivor. But if you want a new roof for your house, you need to pay 4,900 kyat (US $4.29) to the authorities for the materials,” said a housewife in Rangoon. “Then you are luckybecause what I see is that mostly relatives of local authorities buy those roofing materials and sell them on to ordinary people at an inflated price of 30,000 kyat ($26.3) per tin roof.” *^*

Myanmar Junta’s Potemkin Refugee Camp

Reporting from Kyauktan, near Yangon, Kenneth Denby wrote in The Australian: “It IT will be years before the Irrawaddy Delta recovers from Cyclone Nargis - but a visitor to the Sinkan refugee camp could be forgiven for wondering what all the fuss was about. Its 39 blue tents are neat and evenly spaced and their occupants look clean and contented. A team of white-uniformed doctors and nurses tends to their medical needs, white U.N. Toyota Land Cruisers stand in attendance and a group of Japanese diplomats inspects the camp, snapping photographs as they go. This is the version of Cyclone Nargis that the Burmese Government presents to the world. [Source: Kenneth Denby, Kyauktan, Burma, The Australian, May 28, 2008 *|*]

“It is a grotesque lie, which is exposed by going just 10 minutes down the road. There, on the riverbank of the town of Kyauktan, are the true victims - struck down first by the cyclone and then by the neglect and stubbornness of their own Government. Along the riverbank are hundreds of people in living conditions scarcely superior to those of animals. Monsoon rain gushes through the walls and roofs of hastily repaired huts and churns the paths between them into grey mud. Rain is their drinking water - without it, they have only the murky contents of a riverside pond. A week ago they sheltered in the local monastery until they were forced out by authorities. Since the cyclone struck on May 3, these people have only twice been given anything by their Government - a bag of 10 potatoes for each family and a few cups of rice. *|*

“The 180 inhabitants of the Sinkan camp get medical expertise, international aid and the attention of their Government. The 1200 dwellers on the riverside eat only if the trucks of private aid provided by monasteries, commercial companies and generous individuals make it down this far from Rangoon. "The people from the foreign embassies go to see the people in the blue tents, who are the families of people in the Government," Sayadaw Otamma, a monk at the Kanna Pariyati Monastery, says. "Officials there tell them how to answer the questions: 'We like it here. We have enough to eat.' "The Government does not bring the foreigners here because they know that if they spoke to us we would tell them the truth." Except in the Sintan camp, the Government is virtually invisible on the road to Kyauktan; the only representatives I saw all afternoon were a handful of soldiers asleep in the back of their truck. Less than 30km away, in a five-star hotel in Rangoon, cabinet ministers from around the world were promised by the Burmese junta last weekend that foreign aid workers would be allowed into Burma to help the people of the Irrawaddy Delta. *|*

Myanmar Evicts Survivors from Cyclone Camps

About a month after Cyclone Nargis struck, Reuters reported: “Myanmar's junta started evicting destitute families from government-run cyclone relief centers, apparently out of concern the 'tented villages' might become permanent. "It is better that they move to their homes where they are more stable," a government official said at one camp where people have been told to clear out by 4 pm. "Here, they are relying on donations and it is not stable." Locals and aid workers said 39 camps in the immediate vicinity of Kyauktan, 30 kilometers (19 miles) south of Yangon, were being cleared out as part of a general eviction plan. [Source: Reuters. May 30, 2008]

"We knew we had to go at some point but we had hoped for more support," 21-year-old trishaw driver Kyaw Moe Thu said as he trudged out of the camp with his five brothers and sisters. The youngest, year girl named Moe Win Kyah, was sheltered by the others under a pair of black umbrellas. They had been given 20 bamboo poles and some tarpaulins to help rebuild their lives in the Irrawaddy delta, where 134,000 people were left dead or missing by Cyclone Nargis on May 2. "Right now, we are disappointed," Kyaw Moe Thu said. "We were promised 30 poles by the government. They told us we will get rice each month, but right now we have nothing."

Rumours are flying around the international aid community in Yangon that the evictions are occurring in state-run refugee centers across the delta. The evictions come a day after official media in the former Burma lashed out at offers of foreign aid, criticising donors' demands for access to the delta and saying cyclone victims could "stand by themselves". "The people from Irrawaddy can survive on self-reliance without chocolate bars donated by foreign countries," the Kyemon newspaper said in a Burmese-language editorial.

The government has said the rescue and relief effort is largely over and it is focused on reconstruction. Around Kyauktan, authorities are moving displaced people out of schools ahead of the start of a new term in June. But aid workers said that could be delayed by a month in the delta. The U.N. children's agency, UNICEF, said more than 4,000 basic schools were either damaged or destroyed, affecting 1.1 million students, according to government figures.

Children Might Starve to Death in Myanmar

Two and a half weeks after Cyclone Nargis struck, Associated Press reported: “Thousands of children who survived Myanmar's cyclone will starve to death in two to three weeks unless food is rushed to them, an aid agency warned. The warning came as an increasingly angry international community pleaded for approval to mount an all-out relief effort. The United Nations said Myanmar's isolationist ruling generals were even forbidding the import of communications equipment, hampering already difficult contact among relief agencies. A U.N. report said Saturday that emergency relief from the international community had reached an estimated 500,000 people. But the junta insists it will handle distribution to victims of Cyclone Nargis. [Source: Associated Press, May 18, 2008 ^^]

“Save the Children, a global aid agency, said that thousands of young children face starvation without quick food aid. "We are extremely worried that many children in the affected areas are now suffering from severe acute malnourishment, the most serious level of hunger," said Jasmine Whitbread, who heads the agency's operation in Britain. "When people reach this stage, they can die in a matter of days." ^^

“In one town near Yangon, tired and hungry refugees stood in the baking sun beside flooded rice paddies, demolished monasteries and thatched huts. With the arrival of each vehicle carrying precious food and water, they jumped with excitement and surged ahead to get a share. At least they were getting something. "The farther you go, the worse the situation," said an overwhelmed doctor in the town of Twante, just southwest of Yangon, Myanmar's main city. "Near Yangon, people are getting a lot of help and it's still bad. In the remote delta villages, we don't even want to imagine." The doctor declined to give her name, fearing government reprisal. ^^

“A French navy ship that arrived Saturday off Myanmar's shores loaded with food, medicines and fresh water — a potentially lifesaving cargo — was given the now-familiar red light. France's U.N. ambassador, Jean-Maurice Ripert, said, "We have small boats, which could allow us to go through the delta to most of the regions where no one has accessed yet. We have small helicopters to drop food, and we have doctors." The USS Essex, an amphibious assault ship, and its battle group also have been waiting to join the relief effort. Myanmar has been slightly more open to aid from its neighbors, accepting Thai and Indian medical teams.” ^^

Why Myanmar Blocked U.N. Emergency Food Aid

Explaing why Myanmar’s junta was blocking desperately needed foreign aid, the historian Thant Myint-U wrote in Global Viewpoint: “Cyclone Nargis struck at a time of particularly sensitive relations between the junta and the aid community. The outrage felt at the lack of international access is more than understandable. Hundreds of thousands of lives are at stake. But the actions of the generals should also come as no surprise. Myanmar's ruling junta is not simply a military government. At its core is a security machine developed over a half- century of civil war and foreign intervention. Everything is viewed through a security lens. [Source: Thant Myint-U, Global Viewpoint, May 2008 ~]

“The idea of throwing open the country's borders to international aid teams goes against the most basic instincts of the men in power. It will never happen. If the diplomacy around securing access seems tough, the dilemmas around any future recovery may be thornier still. Once the immediate crisis is over, the Irrawaddy delta will require a gargantuan reconstruction effort, lasting months if not years. Entire towns have been wrecked, millions displaced, livelihoods ruined. With rice prices sky-high, the lives of millions more could become untenable. ~

“Should the United Nations and others only provide emergency humanitarian aid and then leave? Or can the world help revive the Irrawaddy delta, once Asia's greatest rice exporter? Can there be any logic to maintaining sweeping U.S. and European economic sanctions on aid, trade and investment while also trying to rebuild the devastated areas? And what of the rest of the country? The delta is obviously the priority, but huge numbers of other people live in terrible poverty. Should not aid be increased for them as well? The north and the east - especially the uplands inhabited by Myanmar's many ethnic minorities - have suffered from decades of war, with enormous humanitarian challenges of their own.” ~

UN's Ban meets Myanmar junta leader in 2008

On May 22, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon arrived in Yangon at the invitation of Myanmar's ruling generals, the first official visit by a U.N. chief in over 40 years. He toured the cyclone-devastated Irrawaddy River delta and worked to persuade the government to allow more foreign aid for desperate cyclone survivors. AFP reported: “Ban met Senior General Than Shwe in the purpose-built bunker city of Naypyidaw. The general refused to take Ban's phone calls after Cyclone Nargis. The reclusive general , who is rarely seen in public, was decked out in medals and military decorations as he shook hands with Ban before the start of the closed-door meeting. Ban said he was bringing a "message of hope" for Myanmar. "The United Nations and the whole international community stand ready to help you overcome this tragedy," he said. [Source: AFP, May 22, 2008 <|>]

“While welcoming thousands of tonnes of donated relief supplies, the regime has blocked visas for most foreign disaster management experts and insisted reports of survivors not getting enough aid are the work of "traitors". Instead it says the rescue operation is proceeding without trouble despite outbreaks of disease, dire shortages of basic supplies -- and international warnings of a possible famine. <|>

“Ban was taken by helicopter to two locations in the southern delta — a region now sealed off from the outside world, forbidden to journalists and almost all foreign emergency workers. A U.N. official on the tour said he saw no tents from the United Nations or any of the other international aid agencies which have poured hundreds of millions of dollars of supplies into Myanmar since the storm. <|>

“While France queried whether the regime is guilty of crimes against humanity Prime Minister Thein Sein told diplomats that the provision of food, clothing, shelter and medical care was "now almost complete at this stage." But AFP reporters who have been slipped through the security cordon have found scenes of misery in the delta, where entire villages were washed away and corpses still float on the water three weeks on. Many villagers say they have not received any government aid. Reporters saw people jumping into dirty river waters to retrieve packages of noodles thrown there by volunteers working in remote areas. <|>

Full Foreign Cyclone Aid “Allowed In” But Obstructions Remain

After Ban’s meeting with Than Shwe, Ban said the ruling junta agreed to allow “all aid workers” into the country. So, 19 days after the disaster, the Myanmar government bowed to international pressure and agreed to accept substantial foreign aid as long as it was funneled through ASEAN. The U.N. and international relief and humanitarian agencies formed a tripartite group with the Burmese authorities and the ASEAN Secretariat. Supplies began arriving in Yangon by U.S. and United Nations planes with a clear plan of how they would reach the delta. Personnel on U.S. and French ships off the Myanmar were not given permission to offer their help.

In early June, Associated Press reported: “U.S. Navy ships laden with relief supplies steamed away from Myanmar's coast, their helicopters barred by the ruling junta though millions of cyclone survivors need food, shelter or medical care, a Navy spokesman said. The USS Essex group, which includes four ships, 22 helicopters and 5,000 U.S. military personnel, had been positioned off the Myanmar coast for more than three weeks hoping for a green light to deliver aid to the survivors. "The ruling military junta in Burma have done nothing to convince us that they intend to reverse their deliberate decision to deny much needed aid to the people of Burma. Based on this, the decision was made to continue with previous operational commitments," Lt. Denver Applehans said from the flotilla.[Source: AP, June 5, 2008 }*{]

“The junta, which explicitly rejected the use of foreign military helicopters in the relief effort. "I am both saddened and frustrated to know that we have been in a position to help ease the suffering of hundreds of thousands of people and help mitigate further loss of life, but have been unable to do so because of the unrelenting position of the Burma military junta," said Adm. Timothy J. Keating, head of the U.S. Pacific Command. Myanmar is also known as Burma. Keating said the U.S. had made "at least 15 attempts" to convince the junta to allow the ships to deliver aid directly to victims in the country's most badly damaged areas. Help from French and British naval ships which had similarly broken off from their missions to stand by off Myanmar was also rejected. The U.S. was allowed by the junta to fly in relief supplies to Yangon, the country's biggest city, and the flights by U.S. Marine Corps C-130s temporarily based in Thailand are continuing. }*{

“A total of 1.3 million survivors have been reached with assistance by local and international humanitarian groups, the Red Cross and the U.N., said the U.N's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, or OCHA. "There remains a serious lack of sufficient and sustained humanitarian assistance for the affected populations," warned OCHA. The government says 78,000 people were killed by the cyclone and another 56,000 remain unaccounted for. Restrictions on visa and travel permission for foreign workers, as well as on entry of some equipment, continue to hamper the aid effort, despite a pledge made almost two weeks ago by junta leader Senior Gen. Than Shwe to U.N. Secretary Ban Ki-moon to allow foreign aid workers free access to devastated areas. }*{

In mid June, Associated Press reported: “As individuals and aid agencies around the world dig into their pockets for funds to help Myanmar's cyclone victims, the country's ruling junta said that such assistance from the United States could not be trusted. State media has previously said Myanmar feared Washington was using the cover of humanitarian aid to invade the country and steal its oil reserves. The suspicion continued when a media mouthpiece for the regime warned that "the goodwill of a big Western nation that wants to help Myanmar with its warships was not genuine" -- a clear reference to the U.S. The New Light of Myanmar newspaper said Friday that aid from nations who impose economic sanctions against Myanmar and push the United Nations Security Council to take actions against it come "with strings attached." [Source: June 13, 2008]

Charity Contributions to Myanmar Cyclone Relief and Exchange Rate Losses

Associated Press reported: “Despite the junta's regular attacks on Western donor countries, celebrities, ordinary people and aid groups there have donated generously to help the cyclone victims. However, the U.N. said Thursday it has received about half the money it requested for cyclone relief, with some nations apparently delaying their donations because of concerns about restrictions imposed by the military government on foreign aid workers. The U.N. set a goal of $202 million for its relief efforts but so far has received only $89 million, or 44 percent, from government donors, it said. Some $51 million in pledges has not yet been delivered, the U.N. said. [Source: June 13, 2008\\//]

“Funding shortfalls were particularly great for emergency food operations and education, the world body said. "Funding is clearly not coming in at the rate we would hope," said Amanda Pitt, a spokeswoman in Bangkok for the U.N. relief operations. "Funding is urgently needed to sustain the pipeline for food and assistance." Other agencies are faring better. The private, Christian-oriented group World Vision, a major international relief agency, says it already has $19 million of the $25 million or $26 million it needs to enable operations for six months. The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies says it has raised 96 percent of the $51 million it is seeking. \\//

“Private agencies — which play a large part in relief operations —raise much of their funds from individuals. Britain's Disasters Emergency Committee — a consortium of 13 humanitarian aid agencies — says Queen Elizabeth II and Harry Potter series author J.K. Rowling both contributed "significant donations" to Myanmar relief. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has donated $3 million and offered software to help reunite family members separated in the cyclone. In Hollywood, the nonprofit organization Not On Our Watch — founded by actors George Clooney, Matt Damon, Brad Pitt and others — awarded $250,000 to Save the Children and offered to match every additional dollar given to the aid group up to $250,000. \\//

In late July, Reuters reported: “The United Nations top humanitarian affairs official said that the world body had incurred “significant” losses in Myanmar due to a distorted official exchange rate while delivering cyclone aid. Earlier the United Nations issued an appeal for over $300 million in additional aid for Myanmar to cope with the effects of a cyclone. U.N. Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs John Holmes told reporters that the world body has so far lost around $10 million on aid delivered so far, adding up to an average loss of some 15 percent.“We were arguably a bit slow to recognize … how serious a problem this has become for us,” Holmes told reporters, adding that the loss was “significant.” He said the spread between the market and official rate widened suddenly in June. [Source: Reuters, July 28th, 2008////]

“The news blog Inner City Press (www.innercitypress.com), which follows the United Nations, said that the military junta had changed the official exchange rate since the cyclone so that the estimated loss had increased from 15 percent to 25 percent. The loss comes from a complicated system whereby the United Nations uses so-called foreign exchange certificates, which have a nominal value of $1 per certificate and are then exchanged for local currency, kyats, at a rate set by the government. The market rate for kyats is around 1,100 per dollar but the U.N. rate is now around 880, according to Inner City Press. Holmes said it was unclear where the exchange rate losses were going and who specifically was benefiting.“It’s not clear that it goes straight into the government’s pockets, because they don’t do the actual exchange,” he said. “That’s done by currency vendors. I’m not saying that there isn’t some benefit to the government in the spread somewhere — the likelihood is that there is.” ////

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, The Irrawaddy, Myanmar Travel Information Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, burmalibrary.org, burmanet.org, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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