Myanmar/Cyclone Nargis: The hiddencosts of reconstruction

Bangkok - A month after a deadly cyclone ripped through Burma's Irrawaddy and Rangoon Divisions, more than a million victims have received little or no assistance, according to relief agencies working in Burma.

While the international community stands ready to mount a major relief effort, the junta continues to prevent international aid workers and disaster experts from entering the country, and has allowed only a handful into the worst affected areas in the lower delta.

The regime has reversed its promise to cooperate with international aid agencies and will restrict their activities in the coming weeks, according to reliable sources in the Burmese army. "The Americans and the INGOs [international non-governmental organizations] are intent on enslaving our country, they do not want to help our people," General Maung Aye told government ministers in charge of reconstruction earlier this week. Local community organisations are also to be targeted, as they are seen as slaves to donors, the source said

As international aid agencies struggle to get access to those that are in desperate of assistance in the delta, local Burmese community groups continue to mount a major relief effort of their own - currently reaching villagers that have not had food or fresh water for more than three weeks. But now they too have fallen foul of the military authorities. Earlier this week authorities detained a key activist, the comedian and film director known simply as Zargana.

Although publicly the UN remains cautiously optimistic, international aid agencies and human rights groups are warning that serious problems are looming that will have to be tackled if the country is to recover from the devastation caused by the cyclone.

Trauma and emotional distress are likely to be major impediments to Burma's reconstruction, warned the European-based agency Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), while the UK-based rights group Amnesty International is concerned at the growing number of reported human rights abuses. They fear that forced evictions and relocations, forced labor and forced conscription, human trafficking and the forced seizure of land are likely to seriously hamper reconstruction efforts.

The key issue at the moment for everyone involved in the relief effort is access to the delta. "We see a lot of people in the coordination meetings, but we do not see many organisations on the group," Frank Smithuis, head of the MSF mission to Burma told Mizzima. MSF has managed to get more than 20 international staff into the delta and have some 250 Burmese doctors, nurses and paramedics already working in the worst affected areas in Irrawaddy Division.

"Everyday our teams come across villagers that have not received any aid since the cyclone," said Smithuis. "Not enough is being done, it's still an emergency situation," he added. Several other international aid agencies, including US-based World Vision and the Australian organisation CARE have also deployed international staff into the worst-affected areas. In another remote delta area, visited by CARE, villagers said "all their rice stocks had been destroyed, and they had been surviving by either collecting coconuts or eating spoiled rice," Jon Mitchell, CARE's emergency response director, told journalists after visiting the village earlier this week.

The UN has also had some 20 international staff gain access to the delta, but so far they have not been allowed extended stays there. "Access to the delta remains a challenge," Paul Risely told a press conference earlier this week.

"Getting into the Irrawaddy Delta has improved significantly since Ban Ki-moon met Than Shwe two weeks ago," said Richard Horsey, a spokesman for the UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). "The cumbersome bureaucratic procedures to get permission to travel have been streamlined."

So far the UN has managed to get permission for their international staff to travel to the delta, but it has been highly restricted and limited. They have government escorts with them at all times. Access remains a key issue for the relief effort. It is being raised at the regular meetings of the Tripartite Committee - comprising senior representatives from ASEAN, the UN and the Burmese government - that is intended to oversee the international relief effort. They have thus far met twice, last Saturday (31st May) and Monday (2nd June). The real problem will be getting permission for UN staff to have extended visits to the delta, which is critical if the relief effort is to be effective.

"International experts must have access to the cyclone-affected areas," said Richard Horsey. "So far the door has not opened wide." The UN is now seeking long-stay permission for international staff to go to the delta - so far there is no indication of how the government s going to respond. The UN remains hopeful, but analysts believe they will be restricted to designated areas in the delta which are now functioning as relief hubs - including Labutta and Bogalay.

Millions of lives in the Irrawaddy Delta depend on the UN, international agencies and local Burmese groups being able to mount a massive relief and rescue mission in the affected areas. The signs from the military are not good. The country's second most powerful general, Maung Aye, and another key general travelled in the delta area earlier this week. Two days ago in the regional capital, Pathein, Maung Aye told ministers charged with co-ordinating the rehabilitation and reconstruction effort that the government had "declared war on the INGOs and local groups who received donations money from donors".

Maung Aye has long been suspicious of the activities of international aid agencies. When then military intelligence chief Khin Nyunt was arrested in October 2004, Maung Aye was dismayed when he discovered the extent and access international NGOs had got - especially in Shan state. He feared that their work in the predominantly ethnic areas would destabilise government efforts to disarm the ethnic rebel groups that had ceasefire agreements with the government.

"Maung Aye may also have been shocked at the extent of the relief efforts being carried out by local Burmese community groups, like those of Zargana and Kyaw Thu," the independent Burmese academic, Win Min told Mizzima. "The army's efforts by comparison would seem insignificant," he added.

Many aid agencies have bought or hired fleets of cars, trucks and small boats to help distribute the aid supplies to the cyclone victims, many of whom are still caught in highly inaccessible areas. The UN has tried to get helicopters in to help with the distribution. But so far only the World Food Programme (WFP) has been allowed to operate a single helicopter that arrived from Kuala Lumpur more than two weeks ago and has so far been allowed to make a daily flight to Latbutta.

Nine other WFP helicopters are still in Thailand waiting permission to fly into Rangoon. Two of them - brought by an Australian cargo carrier from South Africa - have been reassembled and waiting to go for more than a week now. "Helicopters would definitely be helpful in speeding up distribution," Smithuis said. So far the regime has been reluctant to allow international aircraft to fly around Burmese territory. Meanwhile the Burmese army has allocated some four helicopters to be used in the relief efforts.

While the priority of international aid agencies is certainly getting relief supplies to millions of survivors - many of whom have not had food and fresh water in the past five weeks - and providing adequate shelter, some are also pointing to long-term needs.

"They need food, not just now but in the months ahead. The people told us that they thought they could replant the crops but needed seeds. Even if these new crops succeed, it will be 5 months before they will have food again. Food aid, here and for villages across the delta will be a major long-term priority," said Jon Mitchell, CARE's emergency response director.

For MSF there is even a more fundamental problem - the survivors' mental well-being. "Everyone I met in the delta was suffering from post-traumatic stress and emotional anxiety," said Kaz de Jong, a mental health advisor with MSF who has just spent two weeks in the delta. "They were all visibly sad, anxious and afraid," he said. "Children clung onto each other or held on tightly to the last thing they had in their hands before the cyclone struck."

"They complained of difficulties to sleep, nightmares, reliving the last moments before the cyclone and the last images of their relatives who perished," he told Mizzima. They have energy loss and a lack of motivation which impairs their ability to function and rebuild their lives. "This is a normal reaction to abnormal circumstances," said de Jong. But this has to be treated if communities are to fully recover.

There is a sense of despair everywhere in the delta. Survivor-guilt is prevalent, with children sitting around dazed and wondering why they survived and not their parents. "We are worried about where the rice is going to come from, but we have to want to eat. I have lost everything, why should I eat?" an old woman told an MSF doctor.

MSF is training Burmese counsellors on how to deal with trauma. But it will be a Herculean task to treat all these people. Even if they are able to rebuild their homes and re-establish their farms and fish ponds, it will take years for these poor people to overcome the trauma inflicted by the cyclone.