Australia to increase Burma aid

Feb 8, 2010 (DVB), Australia will increase aid to Burma by 40 percent over the next three years, despite maintaining sanctions on the pariah Southeast Asian state, the Australian foreign minister announced yesterday.

The increase will bring to $AUS50 million ($US43 million) the total annual aid provided by Canberra. Burma currently receives only $US4 per head in foreign aid, the lowest of all the Southeast Asian countries, despite also being one of the poorest.

The country has been targeted by multiple Western sanctions since 1997, while the majority of aid was temporarily halted following the brutal crackdown on protestors during the 1988 uprising.

Foreign minister Stephen Smith said however that it was time for the international community to "help prepare Burma for the future" through "rebuilding, economic and social structures".

"This is not a reward for Burma’s military, but a recognition of the immense task faced by current and future generations of Burmese," he told Australia's house of representatives.

But in November last year a pledge by Canberra to provide an extra $AUS15 million in aid to the cyclone-hit Irrawaddy delta was met with scepticism by aid experts who warned that corruption could see much of the aid being siphoned off by the government.

Following the warning, a local aid official in Irrawaddy division was sentenced to 10 years' in prison after being accused of stealing rice donated via overseas aid.

Relief work in delta remains monopolised by junta-backed agencies, who have been accused both of abusing aid funding and restricting the movement of foreign aid workers.

The latest funding however will target the health, education and agriculture sectors. Burmese farmers are still reeling from cyclone Nargis in 2008, which destroyed nearly a million hectares of fertile land, while the ruling junta spends only 0.3 percent of the annual budget on healthcare.

Much of population in Burma's remote border regions struggles to access adequate healthcare, while thousands flock into Thailand each year to visit clinics along the border.

Smith said that Australia will "expand existing initiatives in basic health care", as well as improving village-level medical training and facilities which receive almost no government funding.

Reporting by Francis Wade

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