Sunday, May 3, 2009

နာဂစ္ မုန္တိုင္းဒုကၡသည္မ်ားအား အတင္းအဓမၼ တံတားေဆာက္ခိုင္း

Cyclone tragedy forces Burma junta to build bridges

Published Date: 03 May 2009
By Special Report from Pathein, Burma
THE grass, one year on, has finally taken hold in the salty soil of the cemeteries. The bodies, nearly 85,000 of them, have been fished from the rivers, dug from the mud, cleared from the ponds and put to rest.
In addition, about 54,000 people are still listed as missing, but everyone in the Burmese delta who survived Cyclone Nargis knows full well that "missing", by now, means "dead".

The cyclone, which struck on the night of May 2 last year, was one of the deadliest storms in recorded history. It blew away 700,000 homes in the delta. It killed three-quarters of the livestock, sank half the fishing fleet and salted more than a million acres of rice paddies with its seawater surges.

In many ways, just a year beyond these horrors, life in the Irrawaddy Delta has settled back into some of its familiar rhythms: the push of the planting and the pull of the harvest.

But something unexpected has happened too, according to UN officials, aid workers and foreign diplomats in Burma. The storm – and the increase in humanitarian aid that followed – may have opened a breach in the hard political wall around Burma.

In the days after the cyclone, the hard-line generals who run Burma did not know what, quite literally, had hit them. French and American naval ships carrying aid supplies waited just offshore for more than two weeks while the generals dithered. Finally, lacking permission to deliver the aid, the ships withdrew – to international condemnation of the junta.

"The generals thought it was just another typical cyclone, where the army would hand out some rice and a few tarps and that would be it," said a senior UN programme director who spoke anonymously for fear of angering the government.

"The regime made some shocking mistakes early on, really horrible, when they blocked the aid. But these were decisions driven by national pride. They thought, 'We can handle this on our own.'

"With all the international furore, they finally realised 'This is way, way too big for us.' And after that, they did a lot. A huge national response occurred."

The secretive and xenophobic junta – still fearing a seaborne invasion by western powers – now readily accepts air shipments of foreign aid, even from the West. Although foreigners still cannot enter the delta without official permission, the number of international aid groups allowed to work in Burma has doubled in the past year.

Burma's neighbours in the Association of South-east Asian Nations, especially Indonesia and Singapore, have been widely credited with helping the junta to assume a somewhat more relaxed posture.

Healthcare experts also cite the government's efforts to actively address a range of public health issues, especially avian flu, HIV and Aids.

"You can work here very well, and to say that you can't is a lie," said Dr Frank Smithuis, a country director for Doctors Without Borders. "Look, the human rights record is shaky, yes, and it's politically nice to beat up Burma, but the military at times has actually been quite helpful to us."

The junta is widely vilified. It has imprisoned political opponents, Buddhist monks and a Nobel Peace Prize laureate without apology. When the country's most famous comedian, Zarganar, also known as The Tweezers, rebuked the government over its slow response to Cyclone Nargis, he was arrested and sentenced to 59 years in prison; the term was later reduced to 35.

And though short-term aid is getting to the delta, major donors have stayed away, including the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the Global Fund to Fight Aids, Tuberculosis and Malaria.

According to a new recovery plan, the delta will need £460m in aid over the next three years, although it could be hard to raise. A yearlong UN appeal has just ended, underfinanced by £108m, or one-third of its goal.

"The people in the delta aren't defeated, but they are lost," said a western diplomat who recently visited the area but was not authorised to speak on the record.

"They're desperate. They didn't have much before, and now they have next to nothing. They just don't see how to climb out."

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