Myanmar

I Want to Help My Own People - State Control and Civil Society in Burma after Cyclone Nargis

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I want to save my own people. That's why we go with any donations we can get. But the government doesn't like our work. It is not interested in helping people. It just wants to tell the world and the rest of the country that everything is under control and that it has already saved its people.

-Comedian and activist Zargana prior to his arrest, Rangoon, June 2008 It was Cyclone Nargis which created the space for us to engage in humanitarian work, not the government.

-Director of a Burmese humanitarian group, Rangoon, March 2010 One of the most positive accomplishments of the cyclone response was to demonstrate the positive role that NGOs and the UN can play in a humanitarian response.... It is unfortunate that translating this good example from the cyclone response into other parts of the country has not happened yet.

-UN Resident Coordinator Bishow Parajuli, Rangoon, March 2010

Cyclone Nargis struck southern Burma on May 2-3, 2008, killing at least 140,000 people and bringing devastation to an estimated 2.4 million people in the Irrawaddy Delta and the former capital, Rangoon. The Burmese military government's initial reaction to the cyclone shocked the world: instead of immediately allowing international humanitarian assistance to be delivered to survivors, as did countries affected by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, the ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) prevented both foreign disaster relief workers and urgently needed relief supplies from entering the delta during the crucial first weeks after the cyclone.

The military government blocked large-scale international relief efforts by delaying the issuance of visas to aid workers, prohibiting foreign helicopters and boats from making deliveries to support the relief operation, obstructing travel by aid agencies to affected areas, and preventing local and international media from freely reporting from the disaster area. Rather than prioritizing the lives and well-being of the affected population, the military government's actions were dictated by hostility to the international community, participation in the diversion of aid, and an obsession with holding a manipulated referendum on a longdelayed constitution.

In the face of the government's callous response, Burmese civil society groups and individuals raised money, collected supplies and traveled to the badly affected parts of the Irrawaddy Delta and around Rangoon to help survivors in shattered villages. Many efforts were spontaneous, but as the relief and recovery efforts gained pace, dozens of communitybased organizations and civil society groups organized themselves and gained unprecedented experience in providing humanitarian relief and initiating projects.

Access for United Nations agencies and international humanitarian organizations improved starting in late May 2008 after UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon visited the delta, and the UN and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) brokered a deal with the Burmese government. They established the Tripartite Core Group (TCG), which became the central vehicle for coordinating aid, improving access for humanitarian organizations to the delta, and carrying out the ensuing recovery efforts.

The two years since Cyclone Nargis have seen an unprecedented influx of humanitarian assistance to the delta, with a visible presence of local and international aid workers and improved access to provide humanitarian relief. While this opening has been rightly welcomed, it has not been the unmitigated success that many Burma analysts have portrayed it to be.

Humanitarian access to the delta improved significantly by Burma standards following the establishment of the TCG mechanism, but it has remained far short of international standards. And partly because of the access restrictions imposed by the SPDC, humanitarian funding has not been sufficient to meet the needs of people in the cyclone-affected zones. As a result, two years after the cyclone, the recovery of many communities in the delta remains limited, particularly communities far from the towns where most relief efforts were organized. Such communities face continuing hardships and difficulties obtaining clean water and adequate sanitation, health resources, needed agricultural support, and recovery of livelihoods. Had the SPDC not continued to place unnecessary restrictions on the humanitarian relief effort in the delta, the cyclone-affected population would be much farther down the road to recovery.

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