Nargis Victims Continue Suffering in Burma

The devastating tropical cyclone that struck Burma (officially known as Myanmar) a year ago had shown the world the real face of the military rulers of the Southeast Asian nation. But the natural disaster had opened up the country to the international community’s to some extent. The international exposure to the alienated Burmese, who have been living under military rule for over four decades, seems to play the role of a catalyst for a change in the coming days.

Originated from the Bay of Bengal, the deadly cyclone hit the Burmese land on the night of May 2 and continued its devastation till the next morning. It left a trail of devastation in the entire Irrawaddy and Rangoon (Yangon) divisions of the country.

Nargis also partially destroyed the areas under the Bago, Mon and Kayin region. With human casualties, the cyclone added to the damage of social infrastructures, killing of thousands of livestock and also causing flood, wiping out paddy fields, which were made ready for the country’s primary crops rice. The cyclone claimed nearly 140,000 people and another few hundred thousand people went on missing. The United Nations estimated that Nargis affected 2.4 million people and rendered thousands families homeless.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization estimated the loss of nearly 300,000 water buffalo and cows, 7,500 goats, 65,000 pigs, 1.5 million chicken and ducks. Nearly 1,000,000 acres of farmland in Irrawaddy and 300,000 acres in Rangoon division were destroyed. Similarly Nargis damaged over 800 000 houses, including schools and hospitals. Of course, the military government reported the final death toll as only 84,537 only. The government-run daily newspaper ‘The New Light of Myanmar’ revealed that the storm left 53,836 missing and 19,359 people injured. Burma has neither independent media nor easy internet access throughout the country.

The ruling State Peace and Development Council not only wanted to hide the statistics of casualty, the group of Generals also initially prevented international aid workers to enter the country. International agencies and local donors were stopped from entering the affected areas and also delivering aid, which was meant for hundreds of thousands of people in jeopardy. Soon the condemnation was poured on the military junta for its arrogant and inhuman behaviour and practices.

The callousness of the junta was criticised by Suzanne DiMaggio of the Asia Society’s Social Issues Programme saying that for nearly five decades, Burma’s military rulers had systematically undermined the interests of their own citizens. Referring to Narigs, she stated that the junta-controlled news media failed to announce warnings about the approaching cyclone. The military regime at its new capital Naypyidaw, which is north of Rangoon, had an apprehension that the massive flow of foreign aid workers to their country might create trouble for them in the coming days.

Even the SPDC chief senior general Than Shwe got time to visit those victims only after international criticism came out in a bigger way. The military rulers were softened only after the personal visit of the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in the middle of May. Slowly the communication between Naypyidaw and the international agencies got improved. Visas and travel permits were made little easier and faster for the foreign aid workers.

India, which maintains strategic relationship with Burma, was one of early supplier of aid to the cyclone victims. New Delhi launched Operation Sahayata to deliver more than 175 tonnes of relief materials including food supplies, tents and medicines. Moreover, the Indian government successfully pursued with the junta to accept the international aid. Later a team of 50 medical personnel was also sent by India to the Irrawaddy delta. After 12 months of the disaster, the situation remained almost same.

Now there are no refugees in the camps, as the military dismantled those nearly six months back. But the affected people are still living with acute shortage of pure drinking water and food, not to speak of proper shelter. More over most of the victims, who survived Nargis, are facing unending trauma.

An independent report (meaning free from censorship by the junta) released recently divulged the fact that the dictators failed to provide adequate food, water and shelter to the Nargis survivors and even then continued violating the rights of the victims as well as the local relief workers. “The junta’s response was marred by failures to warn, failures to respond, limits on humanitarian assistance from independent Burmese NGOs and citizens, and limits on humanitarian assistance from international entities eager to assist,” said in the report, which was jointly released by the Center for Public Health and Human Rights of Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and the Emergency Assistance Team -Burma (which was formed in May last year by the Burmese community-based organizations dedicated to providing aid and assistance to the Nargis affected people).

Titled ‘After the Storm: Voices from the Delta’, the report also asserted that the junta obstructed relief to victims of the cyclone, arrested aid workers and severely restrained accurate information in the wake of the disaster. The community-based assessment report of health and human rights in the wake of Nargis also added, “Relief workers witnessed systematic obstruction of relief aid, willful acts of theft and sale of relief supplies, forced relocation, and the use of forced labor for reconstruction projects, including forced child labor.”

Professor Chris Beyrer, director of Center for Public Health and Human Rights, said in an interview that the findings of the reports ‘are evidence of a wide array of abuses perpetrated by the ruling SPDC in the response to a disaster which is in violation of international humanitarian relief norms and legal frameworks for disaster relief’.

Meanwhile, the UN has highlighted urgent needs for the cyclone affected people. Addressing a donor meeting in Rangoon during the first week of April, Bishow Parajuli, the UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator, emphasized that there was still an imminent need for sustainable shelter and agricultural support ahead of the monsoon season. Organized by the UN, the meeting was attended by around 70 participants, including the Heads of Diplomatic missions, UN Agencies and National and International Non-Governmental Organizations.

The UN office in Myanmar also admitted that the level of humanitarian assistance that currently being provided in Burma was much

lower than the actual needs of the people. More over there are cyclone affected people living in the camps at his moment, as those were dismantled last year. Most people have returned to their villages of origin or relocated elsewhere, however, pockets remain in which a number of households have yet to find durable solutions remain and relocations or returns still have to be facilitated.

Nava Thakuria is a Guwahati (Northeast India) based journalist, who contributes to NewsBlaze and various media outlets throughout the world.