Tuesday, July 01, 2008

What is happening in Burma?

Remember the horror stories? The shrieks of frustrated rage and hysteria when the NGOs and the tranzi aid organizations were not allowed into Burma by the nasty military regime who insisted on distributing aid themselves?

Just a few days ago the G8 leaders were once again pressurizing the Burmese government to let in aid workers to help with the devastation caused by the cyclone. Of course, they were mainly concerned with watching for signs to progression towards a civilian government and clearly thought that an influx of tranzis will strengthen that progression. Past experience of tranzi activity in some of the worst kleptocratic regimes in the developing world would undermine that hope but the G8 leaders are nothing if not optimistic.

Of course, it is not entirely true that the Burmese military junta – a fairly nasty bunch of rulers, though they pale into insignificance next to our old friend Robert Mugabe or his friend, President Omar Bongo of Gabon, Africa’s longest lasting leader – let in no aid at all.

As we wrote at the time here and here, the US Navy did go in and help though under supervision by the government. Unlike the UN, the American sailors did not consider this a reason for withholding much-needed aid, though early last month they, too, decided that enough was enough. There were too many difficulties in the way.

Meanwhile the "international community" continued to collect money from governments but also from foolish individuals and organizations, who clearly did not bother to ask what was happening to their donations, stockpile food and look for signs of hope that they might be allowed to go in.

So what has happened? Well, errm, it seems that the news is not that bad and, in fact, probably considerably better than the stories coming out of Thailand, Sri Lanka and Indonesia, where victims of the tsunami are still in need of aid.
Dire warnings that cyclone survivors in Myanmar might fall prey to disease and starvation failed to take into account the survival instincts of those affected, aid agencies and disaster experts say.

The resilience of the people — along with the skills of Myanmar citizens working for local and international humanitarian agencies — proved to be the most critical survival weapons and helped mitigate the limited access allowed to foreign disaster experts, they said.

U.N. agencies and private humanitarian groups agree a feared second wave of post-cyclone casualties did not take place. And barriers the junta put in the way of foreign aid appear not to have caused a measurable increase in deaths from illness and lack of food.

"These parts of Myanmar are visited by cyclones almost every year, although not of the same scale," said Ramesh Shrestha, the UNICEF representative in Myanmar. "Hence people were quite able to adapt to this sudden impact."

Myanmar's government said this week that a survey undertaken jointly with the U.N. and the regional Association of Southeast Asia Nations found no post-cyclone deaths related to lack of assistance, though the findings are preliminary.
Please don’t get us wrong, say the experts who went in:
No one is saying Cyclone Nargis was not a tragedy of epic proportions or that Myanmar's military government was justified in turning aside offers of outside aid.
We, on this blog, will certainly agree with the first part of that statement but not the second. The results show that the Myanamar (that’s Burma for the rest of us) government was fully justified in turning away those tranzis and, possibly, even in not accepting aid, certainly not aid with as many strings as the UN and the various agencies affix to it. Or, for that matter, aid that involves quite as much luxurious living and destruction of local economy as much of tranzi activity produces (see my colleague’s analysis of the situation in Afghanistan).

There is, however, a bigger issue here and one that surely people will face as the news from what is really happening in Burma filters through? After the initial help is aid-giving the best way forward? If you tell people they will have aid, they will sit and wait for it to arrive, complaining but not doing much. If there is no aid coming, could it be that people simply get on with reconstruction? Just asking.

While we are on the subject of asking, what is happening to all the money the various NGOs, aid organizations and tranzis in general collected for the special purpose of helping the people of Burma? Will it be used for other purposes, such as the welfare of the aid agencies?

What of the stockpiled food and equipment that did not go in? Will it be used somewhere else or allowed to rot? Just asking.

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