Burmese junta ‘politicising post-Nargis aid’

The New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) today warned at the launch of a report that aid workers inside Burma were still “feeling the brunt of continued repression” by the junta, two years after cyclone Nargis.

The report was launched ahead of the two-year anniversary of the cyclone, which struck southern Burma on 2 May, leaving 140,000 people dead and severely affecting 2.4 million. The report, ‘I Want to Help My Own People’, is based on 135 interviews with survivors, aid workers and eye-witnesses.

Elaine Pearson, deputy director of HRW Asia, said that while it is clear that more aid is required for Burma, the junta remained overly restrictive towards aid workers in the cyclone-stricken Irrawaddy delta.

She further noted that Burma was an “impoverished mess” following the cyclone and that there was a serious budget shortfall when it came to aid. Moreover, the junta is spending too little on social welfare concerns, such as health and education, whilst spending 40 percent of the government budget on the military, and failing to invest the massive revenues made from natural gas into such humanitarian projects.

The military’s initial response to the cyclone was heavily criticised after they blocked foreign aid from entering the country, often citing fears of a foreign invasion.

HRW’s Burma analyst, David Mathieson, noted two years on however that: “Burmese civil society saved the day”, and he renewed calls for the release of political prisoners “in the strongest terms”, with around 20 Nargis recovery workers currently in jail.

Successes were noted however as HRW found that the agriculture sector had shown signs of recovery and that, after massive international pressure, an “unprecedented influx of humanitarian assistance”. Mathieson said however that progress and successes of the aid-coordinating Tripartite Core Group, made up of the UN, ASEAN and the Burmese government, “should not excuse the disgraceful actions of the junta”.

The scale of needs was found to be large due to years of neglect by the ruling junta. “The humanitarian needs of Burma’s people for food, clean water, and basic healthcare are immense because the military government has for so long mismanaged the economy,” said Pearson.

It was also found that the military were more concerned with their “sham political process”, as Pearson called the run-up to this year’s election, than with aid and distribution supposedly used for political ends.

Mathieson noted also that “the [pro-government] USDA had a major role in pretending to have a major role helping out” after the cyclone, “whilst food supplies were dangled as an incentive to vote yes,” in the 2008 constitution referendum. The constitution was rushed through in the days followig the cyclone, and showed “how callous the regime really is – the vote was more important than helping the people”.

These calls came after concerns emerged last month that donor agencies from Europe were having problems due to EU sanctions on the junta, which had at times allegedly prevented agencies from purchasing commodities such as timber. A press notice from the UK parliament noted that “aid efforts have stalled”.

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