Thursday, 19 June 2008

Is Cyclone Aftermath Creating a Burmese Civil Society?

The Irrawaddy News

The aftermath of Cyclone Nargis has produced a number of local private relief groups in a country where civil society is under strict scrutiny by the authorities—giving rise to the question: could this phenomenon grow into some kind of social structure?

Shortly after the cyclone struck, a Laputta Township youth group, previously involved in offering funeral services for poor people, set up a cyclone relief team, together with local monks.

They collected funds and rice from better-off people and rice merchants in the township and opened emergency relief centers at monasteries and schools in Laputta, one of the worst hit areas,

On day one of the cyclone, the young people and the monks made rice soup for hundreds of survivors, at a time when no aid had reached the area from state authorities or international relief agencies.

“The local relief workers in Laputta are also themselves cyclone victims,” Aye Kyu, a Laputta physician told The Irrawaddy in early May. “In this disaster, nobody, such as government agencies and others, could help us. So victims needed to stand up by themselves, and help each other as well as save themselves,”

Local relief efforts weren’t confined to Laputta and the Irrawaddy Delta—the desire to help spread across the country.

“Our group started with five people,” said a young Rangoon doctor. “We didn’t collect money, food and other supplies, but just told our relatives and friends that we would go to the Irrawaddy Delta to help people there. Then people who know us donated cash, rice and other relief items for the survivors.”

Some local relief initiatives grew to scores of volunteer workers.

“These civic groups born in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis are unlike civil society in western countries,” said Khin Zaw Win, a Burmese researcher in Rangoon. “They are rooted in goodwill, replacing the irresponsible people.”

One large relief group, the Free Funeral Services Society, led by Burmese actor Kyaw Thu, has 150 volunteers and 50 staffers, according to its official website. The group visited more than 100 Irrawaddy Delta villages with aid.

The Nargis Action Group Myanmar, a sister organization of an education company, Myanmar E-gress, led by Nay Win Maung, a Burmese journalist with good connections to the military elite, has 100 volunteer workers in four townships in the Delta, according to its Web site.

Burmese émigrés add their weight to relief efforts, using their access to blogs and Web sites.

One group, the Myanmar-Burma Emergency Aid Network, based in Burma, Singapore and Britain, started up with 70 volunteers, who took relief supplies to 44 cyclone-hit villages.

“It’s been overwhelmingly impressive what local organizations, medical groups and some businessmen have done,” Ruth Bradley Jones, second secretary in the British Embassy in Rangoon, told The New York Times. “They are the true heroes of the relief effort.”

Such praise doesn’t impress the Burmese regime, which puts difficulties in the way of civic groups, many of which are denied official registration and lack legal basis.

While registered and well-connected groups, such as Myanmar E-gree, are officially approved, the activities of a relief group of 400 volunteers led by Burmese satirist Zarganar have been restricted by the authorities, and on June 4 Zarganar was arrested.

His detention was followed by the arrest of more than a dozen other local relief workers. “From this step, it is too early to talk about the growth of a Burmese civil society,” said Khin Zaw Win.

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