Friday, 25 July 2008

UN keeps watch on aid money to Burma

(ABC News)- It's been almost three months since Cyclone Nargis swept through south-west Burma leaving 140,000 people dead or missing and 2 million without homes.

Australia has put in an extra $30 million, more than doubling its contribution to Burma to help it rebuild after the disaster.

However other nations may not be so generous and there are concerns that aid funds will be siphoned off and end up lining the pockets of the military junta that runs Burma.

The United Nations humanitarian envoy, John Holmes, has just left Burma after assessing what's needed.

Last night as he was in transit in Bangkok he spoke about what has changed since his last visit.

"Repairs were underway, houses were being rebuilt, fields were being tilled, economic activity was underway, so it was beginning to resume at least a degree of normal life," he said.

The rebuilding bill in Burma is expected to reach $1 billion. That's on top of the $500 million that will be spent in total on relief.

This week Human Rights Watch, the New York-based agency, called on donor countries to insist on an independent monitoring process.

John Holmes says that is happening.

"We have international relief workers on the ground in the shape of NGOs (non-government organisations) and UN agencies," he said.

"The embassies who were taking a close interest in this are certainly sending people on a regular basis to see what's going on."

In the early days of the aid efforts, some donor countries were wary of the military junta's past record of diverting development funds for its own use, but most still managed to overcome their scepticism.

"There are relatively large sums of money here but they are not as big as they were for the tsunami," Mr Holmes said.

"The damage in the delta is pretty much equivalent to what happened in Aceh after the tsunami, and the response was much bigger in terms of funding then."

The equation could change once development and rebuilding projects ramp up.

Donor countries which have imposed sanctions against Burma because of its human rights record might well rethink their contributions.

There are some signs of a softening by the junta. This week Burma ratified the charter set down by the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN), which will include provisions for greater human rights protections.

But even the ever-optimistic John Holmes is wary.

"You can sign onto all the documents you like. You have to demonstrate, in practice, that you are going to improve things and that is why a lot of people have been watching the future, not only in the humanitarian area but other areas too," he said.

Based on a report by Karen Percy aired on AM.

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