On Tuesday, the United Nations declared that 1.1 million people across Burma have been “critically affected” by floodwaters that have swept the country since June.
The Burmese government has led the response to what is now the most devastating natural disaster in Burma since Cyclone Nargis killed 130,000 in 2008.
A general election set for November could cap off five years of historic reform for Burma. The difference in the Thein Sein government’s response to the current flood disaster, as compared to the former military junta’s reaction to Cyclone Nargis, has pointed to just how far Burma has moved forwards. But election preparations have taken a huge hit.
On this weeks episode of DVB Debate, panellists discuss whether this years floods have drowned Burma’s hopes for democracy.
On the panel: Aye Aye Myint from the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP); Phyu Phyu Thin, of the National League for Democracy; Kyaw Myint from the Rakhine National Party; and Noe Htan Kup, ethnic affairs minister for Sagaing Division.
Noe Htan Kup highlighted the precariousness of the situation for many hit by floods in Burma’s poorest regions.
“In one village in Chin State, where the flooding was bad, people fled to high ground and had to stay there for two to three days without food,” he said.
“We need forward planning. For example, if we had one or two motorboats in the village tract, we could solve the problem. People in each state and region say we need preventative measures, sure, but they don’t have the money or the resources, not even boats. We need a budget for this.”
Phyu Phyu Thin said she believes large-scale development and environmental degradation exacerbated the impact of the heavy monsoon.
“I’m sure that there will be floods like this again next year,” she said. “Our people may suffer again. It comes down to deforestation and [the damming of] rivers. If you look at the Chindwin River, in the dry season there is no water. We cannot rectify this situation in just one year. In the short term, we need to prepare for future relief efforts. In the long term, we need to think about how to replant the trees and forests.”
The politicians were invited to describe their respective party’s policy-making decisions in response to the floods.
Rakhine National Party’s Kyaw Myint said, “What our party has done is ask people in Arakan State’s disaster zones exactly what they need during the rehabilitation process. Replacement seeds for example. We are also trying to determine how many people have been forced to migrate, who has lost their jobs.
“Displacement can be accompanied by the threat of human trafficking. So, we are collecting data. We are not working alone. We are working together with non-government and civil society organisations in Arakan State. We are ready if the government wants our cooperation.”
USDP’s Aye Aye Myint said that as the ruling party, many looked to the USDP to resolve their problems.
“We have policies set,” she began. “We are trying to implement them practically. But, even though we are implementing our policies, there are still weaknesses, we must confess. Even though we are called the ruling party, in practice the government has weak connections with our party.”
DVB asked if there exists a rift between the government and the USDP.
“No, no, there is no rift,” she responded. “The government accepts that they are related to all parties. But, on the other hand, people see us as the ruling party.”
With the election fast approaching, the Union Election Commission was forced to push back the deadline for parties to register their election candidates.
Noe Htan Kup welcomed the move, and suggested that it may have to be pushed back even further.
“There is not enough of an opportunity for candidates to register. Nearly 70 bridges were destroyed in Chin State. So, how can candidates travel? Even if they tried to walk, the footpaths have been destroyed. Even in the lowlands, we could not go from one village to another,” he said.
The United Nations has estimated that, as of 10 August, 435,000 people are in need of food assistance. The cumulative population of 240,000 households has been forced into displacement shelters.
Will it be possible to go ahead with the vote on 8 November?
“It will be impossible to resettle all the displaced people within the next three months, said Kyaw Myint.
“I think when people are suffering that much, it would not be wise to go ahead with the election on that set date.”
“People are also not interested in elections,” agrees Noe Htan Kup. “It would reflect badly on us if we were to talk party politics now. If weather experts have predicted correctly and there are more floods in September or October, then we must postpone the elections.”
Aye Aye Myint has a different point of view.
“It is an opportunity for the parties and candidates to reach out to the people. It is the best time to visit people and give them help. But people are in a precarious position; food is scarce. For everybody, the most important thing is survival. So it wouldn’t really be fair if we prioritised our election victory over people’s wellbeing.”
Post your opinion on postponing the election, and read what other DVB readers have to say on DVB POLL: Should election go ahead in wake of flood disaster?