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Burma Dashes Asean and UN Hopes of Disaster Cooperation

Originally appeared in The Irrawaddy

September 1, 2010

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) and the United Nations are trying to put a brave face on their joint efforts over the past two years to coax the Burmese government into accepting international aid and allowing unfettered access to areas hit by natural disasters.

Many analysts believe, however, that there is no long-term commitment on the part of the Burmese leaders to change their inward looking mentality and obsessive fear of foreigners.

Burma was in desperate need in May 2008 after the devastating Cyclone Nargis ripped through Rangoon, the nation’s former capital, and the country’s rice basin to the west in the Irrawaddy delta, leaving more than 140,000 people dead or missing.

Slow to react, and suspicious of international offers of aid, Burma’s top leaders were eventually encouraged to accept the massive foreign relief effort sponsored by the UN and the international community, largely because of the herculean efforts of Asean Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan to establish a credible mechanism to oversee the whole operation.

Known as the Tripartite Core Group (TCG), it brought together Asean, the UN and the Burmese government to coordinate the relief efforts and later the reconstruction phase.

“The TCG has been a success in dealing with the delivery of assistance to the victims of Cyclone Nargis,” Surin Pitsuwan told The Irrawaddy.The initial success raised hopes in both the UN and the region that it might be a model for other devastating development problems in the country and might even have a role to play in the government’s national reconciliation process.

“Six months into the engagement that Asean had with Myanmar [Burma] on the recovery process, there was a real momentum, that all involved were confident it could open up a larger space for humanitarian work to be expanded to involve health, poverty eradication, primary education, in other parts of the country,” he said.

The UN hoped that at least the Burmese government might consider a similar approach to northern Arakan State, where the exodus of Muslim refugees from there to many parts of the region—Bangladesh and India to the west and Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand to the east—had prompted considerable regional and international concern.

But this all came to nothing, as the government proved reluctant to have international aid workers have unhindered access to other parts of the country.

“It was hoped that it [TCG] could serve as a mechanism for assistance to other parts of Myanmar once the confidence and comfort level had been raised, but that did not happen,” Surin Pitsuwan said, “Unfortunately, the mandate of the TCG was limited and curtailed down to the specifics of delivering assistance to and recovery of victims of Cyclone Nargis.”

In July, the Burmese government announced the complete end to TCG operations, raising fears in the development community in Burma that the old habits of the past will resume.

The one-stop shop providing easy processing of visas for international staff and a centralized system for the sanctioning of relief and reconstruction programs in the Irrawaddy Delta has ceased.

All memornadums of understanding now have to be renegotiated with the specific government ministries that will be involved in the operational side of the programs.

“In the past the government proved to be intransigent, intractable and intolerable,” said an aid worker based in Rangoon on condition of anonymity. “Things can only get worse from now on.”

At the root of the problem is the Burmese regime’s own strategic concerns, which Asean is well aware of.

“After a year of trying, we got a clear message that the Government would rather concentrate on preparing for the elections that had been promised for 2010, rather than having to deal with foreign aid workers flowing into the countryside,” Surin Pitsuwan said.

In fact the Burmese government was sending out strong signals long before that left few in any doubt that the top brass were embarrassed by the TCG operation, as in affect it gave the impression the government could not deal with the situation.

In February 2009, the Burmese chairman of the TCG and then Deputy Foreign Minister, Kyaw Thu, was kicked upstairs and effectively released of his responsibilities in the TCG—though he continued to attend meetings for some months afterward.

“The writing is on the wall,” an Asian diplomat at the time told The Irrawaddy. Burma’s top military rulers were sending a clear message that they had no interest in the international community and its efforts to assist the regime’s humanitarian programs.

But the organizations involved are still trying to spin a more favorable assessment of the Burmese military’s approach.

“The [Burmese] Government displayed a readiness to set aside other issues, focusing instead on what mattered most—human lives,” Noeleen Heyzer, the head of the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, told delegates at a forum in Bangkok to review the lessons learned from post-Nargis operations.

Lessons were learned though, Heyzer insisted. The key ones were the need for leadership, partnership and trust, she explained.

In particular, she stressed the need to work with civil society and the people in the affected communities.

Ironically, as the only representative of local Burmese NGOs at the conference, Soe Tin was barred from speaking.

“We should have been heard, we are on the ground, we are dealing with the people on a daily basis, we have the best insight into the real problems,” he told The Irrawaddy.

What is needed next time is a swifter response, Heyzer said. And she appealed to the international community not to just provide funds for the relief stage, but to commit to the early recovery phase equally generously.

“What a white-wash,” a European diplomat who attended the meeting told The Irrawaddy, adding, “It’s all about back slapping and image.

“A realistic assessment of what was spent, what impact it has had, and what could have made the process more effective is still needed,” he said.

Many foreign donors to these relief operations and general development efforts in Burma are more seriously questioning the effectiveness of their funding as some recent independent reviews of the UN’s work in Burma have been less than flattering.

In a recent review by independent assessors of the UN Development Program’s (UNDP) million-dollar aid effort in Burma, the review concluded that the results of the projects were “disappointing and unsatisfactory,” and recommended that large parts of the program be shelved next year—something the UN body’s top committee is considering in New York this week.

Villages that received financial support were no better off than villages that did not receive help. The UNDP is working in 60 out of 325 townships, but its work has had a negligible impact on health, education and food security, the report said.

They could do little more than deliver tangibles, like fertilizers and so on, it said, finding that the country team in Burma lacked a coherent strategy and the staff were ill-trained.

The only thing everyone can now agree on is that nothing is going to move in Burma until after the November election.

This will be a crucial time for Burma’s leaders, said Surin Pitsuwan speaking to The Irrawaddy. “Myanmar has resisted any attempt through pressure and appeal for it to relax the process of elections to be more inclusive, transparent and fair. It will have to show it to the world during its first year of the new government that it has secured a strong mandate to rule.

“A clear gesture of its readiness to be integrated into the international system will have to come sooner rather than later after the elections,” he said.

“That is why living up to the promise of continued openness for aid delivery and recovery efforts for the victims of Cyclone Nargis will be the first test case of Myanmar’s willingness and readiness to deal with the world as a responsible member of the global community.”

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