Monday, 2 June 2008

Junta Defends Cyclone Response as 'Prompt,' with Schools Set to Reopen

The Irrawaddy News

Burma's military government said it planned to reopen schools Monday in several areas still reeling from a catastrophic cyclone, a move that international aid groups fear could be harmful to the children.

More than a week ago, the junta agreed to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's request that foreign relief workers be allowed in to the areas worst affected by the storm in the Irrawaddy Delta, after they had been initially barred. But the regime has been slow to implement the agreement, allowing some in but limiting their numbers and adding conditions.

Deputy Defense Minister Maj-Gen Aye Myint, told an international security conference in Singapore that the junta broadcast warnings about the May 2-3 cyclone more than a week in advance and moved quickly to rescue and provide relief to the estimated 2.4 million survivors.

"Due to the prompt work" of the military government, food, water and medicine were provided to all victims, the defense minister said. "I believe the resettlement and rehabilitation process will be speedy."

The comments came a day after the junta came under sharp criticism for kicking homeless cyclone survivors out of shelters and sending them back to their devastated villages.

Hundreds, if not thousands, of displaced people have recently been expelled from their temporary shelters in schools, monasteries and public buildings, Human Rights Watch said Saturday.

"The forced evictions are part of government efforts to demonstrate that the emergency relief period is over and that the affected population is capable of rebuilding their lives without foreign assistance," Human Rights Watch said.

Some international aid agencies said their staffers were still meeting survivors deep in the delta who have not received any help since the storm hit.

Burma's military leaders have also been criticized for not immediately visiting cyclone-affected areas. Junta leader Snr-Gen Than Shwe visited some refugee camps two weeks after the storm.

An article in New Light of Myanmar newspaper said Than Shwe had intended to visit the affected regions as soon as the storm occurred, but delayed his plans "so that the Prime Minister, head of the National Disaster Management Committee, could carry out the relief and rescue work more effectively."

In its struggle to return to normalcy, the junta planned to reopen many schools Monday in areas hit by the cyclone, though some were scheduled to reopen in July.

UNICEF said more than 4,000 schools serving 1.1 million children were damaged or totally destroyed by the storm and more than 100 teachers were killed. As a result, the government planned to train volunteer teachers and hold some classes in camps and other temporary sites, the UN Children's Fund said.

"What is normally a safe space can become an unsafe space," said Gary Walker, a spokesman for the UK charity Plan. "Sending (children) to what can be unsafe buildings with ill-trained and ill-equipped teachers can actually set them back rather than leading them on a road to speedy recovery."

Anupama Rao Singh, UNICEF's regional director, said that reopening schools in the delta Monday "may be too ambitious," since construction materials were still on the way and there was not enough time to rebuild schools and train new teachers.

Cyclone Nargis killed 78,000 people and left another 56,000 missing.

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