Sunday, May 1, 2011

Junta softens approach to Nargis victims

Sunday, 01 May 2011 03:03

IRRAWADDY DELTA, Myanmar: A tattered UN tarpaulin makes a shady awning for one of the huts dotting the emerald rice paddies of Myanmar’s Irrawaddy Delta, a reminder of the devastation wrought by Cyclone Nargis three years ago.
“We rebuilt everything ourselves — the government did nothing,” said Myo Tun, who came to the area with an international aid agency after the disaster struck and whose name has been changed to protect his identity.
Bodies were still floating in the area’s network of waterways weeks after the cyclone hit, he said, as the ruling junta failed to act to help the region.
Now there are signs that the new, nominally civilian government, which took power earlier this year after controversial November elections that excluded democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, is striving to show a
changed attitude.
President Thein Sein, a retired general who was prime minister during Nargis, has pledged to work more closely with humanitarian groups and responses to recent disasters suggest the approach has changed.
“They are more ready to give timely public information on details of these events, and to give access to international agencies,” said Myanmar analyst Richard Horsey.
But privately, many remain cautious.
“I would not say that any organisation operates with 100 percent confidence in this country,” said one senior international aid agency figure, asking not to be named.
Nargis smashed through the southern delta region on May 2, 2008 leaving an estimated 138,000 people dead or missing.
Myanmar’s rulers refused foreign assistance for weeks while 2.4 million people struggled desperately for survival.
“Nargis was a real humanitarian watershed,” said Chris Herink of World Vision, which took part in relief work after an earthquake hit eastern Myanmar in March.
Thousands are still sleeping in temporary shelters after the quake but, unlike when Nargis struck, those affected were helped quickly and by the army itself.
The United Nations said the earthquake, as well as Cyclone Giri, which affected an estimated 260,000 people in Myanmar’s western Rakhine state last October, represented “increased cooperation” between agencies and government.
“It’s an open question in terms of the new leadership and how they will regard humanitarian assistance and in particular international assistance,” said Herink, who added that the signs at the moment were “positive.”
Foreign aid has become crucial in filling the gaps left by a government that spent just 0.9 percent of its budget on health in 2007, according to the World Health Organisation — substantially lower than any other country
that year. AFP