Australian aid to Burma eyed with caution

Nov 24, 2009 (DVB), Experts have warned that the impact of a pledge by the Australian government to provide increased aid to Burma may be dampened by rampant state corruption in the country.

Ahead of a regional post-cyclone Nargis conference in Bangkok tomorrow, Australia has offered $AUS15 million in aid to fund ongoing relief efforts in the cyclone hit Irrawaddy delta.

"Implementation is critical above all, and you have to say that given the track record [of the Burmese government regarding aid], one can't be confident that funds will be used in good ways," said Burma economics expert Sean Turnell, from Australia's Macquarie University.

The ruling junta in Burma was roundly condemned following cyclone Nargis in May 2008, which killed an estimated 140,000 people and left 2.4 million destitute.

The junta had initially refused to allow foreign aid workers into the delta region in the wake of the cyclone, but only bowed following pressure from Burma's regional neighbours.

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

The Bangkok conference will be held by the Tripartite Core Group (TCG), which was formed following the cyclone and consists of the Burmese junta, Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), and the United Nations.

Amnesty International today called on the junta "to end harassment of activists trying to help survivors of cyclone Nargis" after ten activists and journalists were rounded up and arrested for apparently collecting overseas donations to help survivors of Burma's worst natural disaster.

The phenomenon of arresting journalists and aid workers extended to a DVB cameraman who filmed the award-winning documentary, Orphans of the Storm. He could face up to 10 years in prison under the Electronics Act.

The Australian aid will be divided into five different packages, according to an Australian foreign ministry press release. Burma's agriculture and fisheries sector will receive $AUS4 million, with $AUS7 million going to water and sanitation. The rest will be split between education, maternal care and administration.

According to Turnell, however, "the devil is in the detail. Does that money go to the Myanmar Maternal Health and Women's Association, which is a deeply, deeply corrupt local organisation with strong connections to the regime?"

Benjamin Zawacki, Burma researcher at Amnesty International, corroborated Turnell's fears and called for the international community to "demand transparency, accountability, and non-discrimination in the distribution of aid".

Reporting by Joseph Allchin

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