Cyclone's sinister aftermath: a window into a wider catastrophe

Htet Aung Kyaw

May 1, 2009 (DVB), A year ago today, families living in Burma's Irrawaddy delta knew nothing of the cyclone that was about to wreak total havoc on their lives.

The scene would be unimaginable; Burma had escaped 2004's tsunami comparatively easily, compared to other regional countries whose casualties lay in the hundreds of thousands.

Yet the storm that hit Burma's southern shores on the night of 2 May resulted in the deaths of around 140,000, while at least 2.4 million people are believed to have been affected.

"The main thing was that people didn’t believe [the warning] because they had never seen storm like this," said Dr Tun Lwin, director of the Weather and Meteorological Department in Rangoon.

"As they didn't believe it, effective advanced preventative measures could not be taken, and people would not follow us even when those responsible asked them to do so."

I recall a member of staff in his office telling me on 30 April last year that the coastal regions were being hit by mild winds of 40 miles per hour. I tried to talk to him on 2 May, when winds of over 130 mph were reported battering the delta, but had no luck.

Media was one of the early casualties of the cyclone. As news of the devastation began seeping out of the delta, the Burmese government locked all borders, denying journalists entry and shutting off paths of communication to the outside world.

Perhaps more alarming was the denial of overseas aid to cyclone victims. The junta refused to allow a US ship carrying aid to enter the delta, while visa requests for foreign aid workers were rejected.

The Association of South East Nations, the United Nations and the Burmese government have said that a total of $US690 million is needed from the international community over the next three years to restore the lives of those affected by the cyclone.

United Nations Revised Appeal has said that the total amount of funds raised over the last year was $US315 million, more than $US150 million short of the required $US477 million.

Richard Horsey, Burma analyst and former liaison officer with the International Labour Organisation in Rangoon, who recently visited the cyclone-hit Irrawaddy delta, points out that many people still live in emergency shelters built immediately after the catastrophe.

"When we talk about year two and year three, we are talking about recovery, not emergency assistance. And that is much more politically sensitive," he said.

"If we can’t get these communities back on their feet, living in decent houses and able to support themselves, they will go hungry."

He points out however that international funding for cyclone recovery is meager in comparison to 2004's Asian tsunami.

"The scale of the destruction was similar to the tsunami, but the money that cyclone victims have received is only one tenth of this," he said.

"One of the factors is that the tsunami affected many countries, including foreigners," he said.

Likewise, the media was able to access many of the areas almost immediately, whereas in Burma, there continues to be heavy media restrictions.

"So the kind of personal stories and graphic images were not available in the same way after Nargis as they were after the tsunami," he said.

One year on, international aid agency Oxfam claims that hundreds of thousands of people are facing the prospect of being trapped in debt with little prospect of securing further credit or loan.

"One of the many impacts of cyclone Nargis was that it destroyed almost an entire harvest that farmers and fishermen had already borrowed against before the cyclone hit," said Claire Light, Oxfam Country Director for Burma.

"That has meant many families defaulted on those loans, and haven't been able to access enough credit since to get back on their feet."

Aid to Burma has long been a sticky subject amongst the country's rulers, notoriously fearful of any sort of foreign interference. While they hold much of the blame for insufficient aid to the delta region, international policy to Burma is sensitive to the point that the international community has often tiptoed around the issue of funding.

"If they used all $US300 million aid for victims, you will see here newly built housing for all refugees," said Aye Kyu, a medical doctor in Latputta.

Aye Kyu, along with some local community leaders, suspects mismanagement by authorities and some non-governmental officials of the aid that did make it into the delta. The results of this provide a poignant example of the broader issues affecting Burma's downtrodden.

"You see new cars, new people who rent luxury houses and spend money in restaurants, while refugees still live under tarpaulin roofs without proper food," he said.

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