On Friday, 2 May 2008, Cyclone Nargis made landfall in The Irrawaddy Delta, sending a storm surge 40 kilometers into the densely populated agricultural area. On the sixth anniversary of Burma’s worst-ever natural disaster, which killed at least 138,000 people, The Irrawaddy is republishing a comment from May 28, 2008, that investigates whether the then ruling junta found ways to profit from international humanitarian aid sent to help victims.
Many villages in cyclone affected areas in the Irrawaddy delta are still waiting for food, shelters and supplies, according to Burmese aid workers who visited villages in the Kyungyangone, Nyaungdone and Dedaye areas.
“People who were begging there are now being forcibly removed form the roadside,” said a Burmese aid worker who returned from Dedaye. “It’s really a depressing situation there.”
The aid worker said access to the hardest-hit areas is still a major issue. Most small villages close to the sea haven’t received any assistance yet. “People are just dying,” she said.
Almost four weeks after Nargis slammed into Burma, the conditions for refugees have improved only in small, incremental steps. The majority of survivors have yet to see aid of any kind.
After the international donors and high-ranking officials who attended the donor conference in Rangoon on Sunday left, a senior diplomat based in Rangoon shared his pessimism.
“Even if they get aid in cash, they (military leaders) will build roads and bridges—it won’t reach down to people,” he said. The aid worker who returned from Dedaye said aid is reaching there but starvation in nearby towns is visible. “We have seen many traumatized people,” she said. “Some people received some onions and potatoes and two nails for each family (to rebuild houses),” she said.
She said many villages where fishermen and their families live close to the sea have no shelter or food, let alone aid workers.
The UN estimated that 1 million out of 2.5 million in the affected area has received any aid assistance so far.
The UN has been tentatively testing the commitment of Burmese officials following the agreement with the junta’s top leader, Snr-Gen Than Shwe, to allow “all aid workers” to go in and save lives.
This was regarded as a breakthrough by international observers and UN officials, who remained cautious however. Kathleen Cravero of the United Nations Development Programme said that six visas were issued to UN staff on Tuesday.
However, there are still many obstacles on the ground. The regime recently issued an order saying that anyone who wishes to visit the Irrawaddy delta must obtain official permission from the army (kakakyee).
Some Burmese aid workers and activists maintain the junta has not made any concessions, but the UN has made concessions to the regime.
“Now people are putting the blame on the UN and the regime,” one NGO worker told The Irrawaddy on condition of anonymity. “Nargis is now a cash cow for the regime and UN agencies (to raise money),” she said.
Burmese officials said US $11 billion is needed to rebuild communities in the affected area. The figure was met with strong skepticism.
At the donor pledging conference in Rangoon on Saturday, donor countries pledged around $50 million, far short of the $200 million requested by the UN. Some Western donors said there is a will to provide more money, but the regime must allow access as well as transparency and accountability.
One NGO worker said she believed the junta is appearing to cooperate in order to get more countries to pledge funds. “There are many people ready to come and donate if allowed,” she said. “Buy is the aid reaching the people? We have meeting after meeting at the Traders Hotel (in Rangoon) but nothing happens.”
She said all aid workers should be welcomed no matter if Western or Asian. “We shouldn’t think that Westerners can do more and have more understanding.”
“We now have some emergency cowboys who went to the delta region, but they have no clue how to help people and just keep praising their projects and asking for more money,” she said, referring to some Western UN staff members.
A Burmese man in his early 40s who has worked for an international NGO in Rangoon for the past week said they should be given more access to the delta, and they should work more closely with local groups. International NGOs that have operated in Burma for many years have established networks, better understanding and good relationships with local civil society groups, he said, but he claimed, “The UN doesn’t engage with locals.”
There is also a fear among some Burmese that UN officials in Burma may work with the regime’s business cronies, who have been placed under economic sanctions by the US and some EU countries.
The regime is said to have recently offered contracts to Tay Za, the CEO of Htoo Trading Company, Tun Myint Naing, a.k.a Steven Law, the director of Asia World, Zaw Zaw, the CEO of Max Myanmar and others to reconstruct schools, hospitals and government buildings in the affected area.
Debbie Storhard of Alternative-Asean said the UN should not work with the regime’s cronies and apologists.
“We know that the regime has no transparency,” she said. “We know that the world wants to help. However, lowering the bar of accountability and ethics will be confirming to the regime that ill treating people is good for business.
Upon returning from the delta, one aid worker said, “This has become a man-made disaster. Nargis is a cash cow, and Than Shwe has won again. He and his cronies are going to be richer. I think the UN fell into the regime’s trap.”
After watching Ban Ki-moon’s visit to Naypyidaw, some Burma observers in Rangoon said the UN chief had been manipulated by the regime, in a manner similar to that of UN Special Envoy Ibrahim Gambari.