Myanmar

Myanmar: Regime still impeding relief efforts

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By WILLIAM BOOT

Six months after Cyclone Nargis swept into Burma, the people and agriculture of the devastated Irrawaddy delta region are suffering from a combination of inadequate international aid supplies and military junta meddling.

Burma's ruling regime is bungling recovery efforts by insisting on controlling aid and relief workers, while the international response to United Nations' appeals for funding has been lukewarm.

Only 50 percent of the US $480 million sought by the UN has been contributed, the organization admitted as The Irrawaddy went to press.

Some critics see a direct link between the two problems. The opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) alleges that the junta's insistence on controlling all activities in the delta recovery zones has deterred many donors from contributing.

Obsessive control over relief and harassment of local people working with foreign humanitarian aid staff are problems cited by the NLD, which also says this was deterring private donors.

At the beginning of October, the military government arrested a key figure in the NLD's own cyclone relief committee, Ohn Kyaing. The former journalist and elected Member of Parliament had previously spent 15 years in prison, until his release in 2005, for writing what the regime termed seditious pamphlets.

Relief coordinators from the Tripartite Core Group (TCG)-consisting of representatives of the UN, the Burmese government and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean)-have put on a brave face, saying that much has been achieved in recent months.

The TCG says that since Nargis, more than 33,000 metric tons of food have been distributed to over 733,000 people, and outbreaks of waterborne diseases and dengue have been prevented.

But there are signs that the TCG might not be all singing from same song sheet.

Burmese Agriculture Minister Maj-Gen Htay Oo has given an upbeat assessment, claiming that cyclone damage to the delta's farmland has been almost completely repaired, with 97 percent of Burma's afflicted paddy fields replanted.

Speaking at the end of September, the UN's resident coordinator in Burma, Bishow Parajuli, painted a very different picture of the progress of relief efforts in the delta.

"People and communities have been severely affected. It will take a long time until the needs are met," Parajuli said, adding that "agriculture and early recovery continue to be the least funded sectors."

Although the TCG says over 700,000 Nargis victims have been aided, it also notes that the total population affected is about 2.4 million.

"The TCG continues to foster cooperation and serve as a mechanism to resolve issues affecting efficient aid delivery, such as access," the group said in a statement released in October.

The reference to access issues would seem to confirm the view of those who say that the Burmese military is continuing to impede the flow of relief supplies, equipment and aid workers by insisting on micromanaging everything.

There have been reports that Burmese army units have coerced cyclone victims to work on reconstruction projects, including road building in Laputta Township, in return for internationally donated aid packages.

Meanwhile, the impact of the storm and the slow recovery in the delta is likely to have far-reaching economic effects beyond the immediately affected area.

Observers say 60 percent of Burma's delta salt industry was destroyed by the cyclone, and this has so far shown little signs of recovery. Wholesale salt prices in Rangoon have risen 300 percent since May.

Ironically, large-scale salination of paddy fields from seawater flooding during the cyclone continues to hinder rice production.

Scientists from the International Rice Research Institute, called in to advise on ways of rejuvenating production, said rice growing was 25 percent down in the worst-damaged areas due to shortages of labor, infrastructure, equipment and draft animals.

The institute has warned of the risk of salinity recurring in apparently cleared soil during the dry season and urges the introduction of salt-tolerant rice varieties, according to a report in the online magazine, ScienceDaily.

While serious concerns about the prospects for a full recovery remain, however, the junta appears to have other priorities. According to the Washington-based human rights NGO EarthRights International, Burma's military regime is more concerned with carving up the country for resource exploitation than with the reconstruction of the Irrawaddy delta.

"The junta has demonstrated over time a fundamental interest to secure billions of dollars in revenue from natural resources at the expense of the environment and human rights-this is revenue that the people and the agricultural sector are unlikely to see or benefit from," said ERI's Matthew F.