Wednesday, 9 July 2008

Food shortage threatens Burmese survivors

UPI Asia Online

Bangkok, Thailand — Two months after Cyclone Nargis hit Burma, the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has reported that more than 1 million cyclone victims have yet to receive any assistance. In lieu of effective help for farmers in the country’s devastated rice bowl, the World Food Program has warned that almost 1 million people will need food assistance for at least the next six months.

Traumatized children and teachers are struggling on with the school year and doctors race to provide crucial help to pregnant women. The international community is suspended in limbo while the people of Burma limp on, still waiting for the promised signs of progress.

The effects of the cyclone have certainly been political, despite desperate diplomatic claims to the contrary. The junta has demonstrated its intransigence and destructive paranoia to an increasingly impatient world, and passions may have been reignited in the brutally suppressed people of Burma.

The international community chose not to apply the doctrine of Responsibility to Protect; a decision that might have cost many lives. Whether change comes from within or from outside remains to be seen, but in a country with such a strangulating government it seems unlikely that even a people so keen for democracy can do it alone.

The United Nations has reported that cooperation between the international humanitarian community and the Burmese authorities is improving, despite some bureaucratic hurdles. At a press conference in Tokyo, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon referred to his “meaningful dialogue” with Senior General Than Shwe and the Burmese authorities’ “encouraging” acceptance of international aid workers. But in the face of such prolonged desperation in the delta, such claims risk sounding hollow.

According to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, 52,000 farmers will be unable to cultivate monsoon crops without immediate comprehensive help. The consequences of missing this season’s crop are dire. One farmer was quoted as saying, “There is a silent Nargis ahead. We are sure to starve if we miss this season.”

The situation looks bleak. Despite the efforts of the Burmese and international communities, farmers simply haven’t been provided with sufficient seeds, tractors or fuel to plant effectively.

Corruption has served only to compound the extreme difficulties faced in the delta region. The chairperson of the Phyar Pon Township Peace and Development Council is being investigated following accusations that he sold 5,000 bags of fertiliser intended for township farmers. The Thanpyuzayart Town Peace and Development Council collected 1,000 kyat from each of more than 6,000 households in order to pay for the cremations of 389 cyclone victims. Almost one-third of the money collected remains unaccounted for.

Local authorities in Labutta are pressuring 7,000 cyclone survivors to return to their homes. Those who agree to do so will be provided with enough food to last ten days and will be entered in a draw for new houses; those who refuse to leave have been warned that they can expect no aid next month.

The construction projects in the seat of the junta, Nay Pyi Daw, have ground to a halt as construction companies are relocated to assist with the reconstruction efforts in the Irrawaddy delta. An estimated 80 percent of construction work has been relocated, leaving workers jobless or forced to move with the companies. There are concerns that workers must often go unpaid due to the financial problems of their contractors.

Villagers have voiced their doubts that the regime will fulfil its promise to build 6,000 new houses for cyclone victims. Some have further commented that, though they received sufficient aid from private donors, the United Nations and international non-governmental organizations, the junta merely pretended to provide aid in front of its state television channel.

Local organizations in Burma continue their efforts to assist cyclone victims. The National League for Democracy announced plans to focus efforts on providing clean drinking water to cyclone-afflicted villages. The party’s Cyclone Relief Committee will clean and mend ponds used to collect rainwater that have been damaged by salt water carried by the cyclone.

A Rangoon-based NGO, the Myanmar Business Executive Group, has announced a 50 million kyat (more than US$40,000) microfinance scheme to help victims of the cyclone. Loans will be offered to those with no collateral on the basis of recommendations from others in their communities.

An estimated 500 farmers in Dedaye Township have been assisted by a scheme to provide mechanical tillers. The scheme follows the highly successful model of Mohammed Yunus’ microcredit scheme in Bangladesh.

The Medical Association has reported that a total of 21,834 cyclone victims have been found to be carrying the tuberculosis virus. TB, a communicable disease that easily affects vulnerable people living in densely populated relief camps, is of high concern in Burma.

Reporters Sans Frontieres notes that at least 10 foreign journalists have been expelled since the cyclone, the latest of whom is Inga Gruss, a German volunteer with local NGO Myanmar Egress. The authorities are thought to have become suspicious after she met veteran politicians and ethnic leaders for her social science research.

Burmese border police have caught human traffickers as they tried to smuggle 80 women and children from the cyclone-afflicted region into neighboring countries. It is feared that trafficking will increase in the wake of the cyclone, and the regime has warned against the exploitation of cyclone victims. Burma introduced an anti-trafficking law in 2005 that carries a maximum penalty of death.


(Khin Ohmar is coordinator of the Asia Pacific Peoples' Partnership on Burma, based in Thailand. She can be contacted at Her blog may be found at

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