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Humanitarian Aid not Political Maneuvering

By Burma Partnership  •  August 11, 2015

flooding in Burma This year’s monsoon rains have hit Burma harder than most years in the country’s history, leading to the worst natural disaster since Cyclone Nargis in 2008. So far, nearly 100 people have died from the severe flooding caused by heavy rains and flash floods and over one million people have been affected in all but two of Burma’s 14 states and regions since June 2015. Approximately 1.2 million acres of rice fields have been destroyed including large parts of Burma’s “rice bowl,” the Irrawaddy Delta, and nearly 14,000 educational institutions have been temporarily shut down due to this natural disaster.

For many, this devastating disaster, which is taking place a few months prior to the 2015 election, is a stark reminder of the 2008 constitutional referendum when the Burma Government callously went ahead with the voting, despite the state of widespread chaos due to the effects of Cyclone Nargis, which killed an estimated 140,000 people. The referendum inaugurated the military-drafted 2008 Constitution, while widespread reports of vote tampering and official coercion led many civil society and rights based organizations to call on the international community and governments to reject the constitutional referendum.

Unlike 2008, the government has mobilized international aid and assistance during this time of catastrophe; however, the government has threatened to prosecute those who spread “false news relating to natural disaster with the intention of frightening people.” This type of warning intimidates the public into silence as it reminds people of the 2008 disaster when many aid workers who independently provided humanitarian aid to victims or criticized the government’s response were arrested and even imprisoned.

Meanwhile, as the Burma Government calls for international assistance for food, shelter and clothing, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has appealed to donor countries to lend their support in a coordinated fashion, as “donations which are uncoordinated tend to go astray.”

Aid has been slow to reach many disaster-designated areas, drawing criticism regarding the speed and effectiveness of the government. This is the same government that established the National Natural Disaster Protection Central Committee, and enacted the Burma Natural Disaster Management Law in 2013, which was meant to better implement natural disaster management programs and to reduce disaster risks, which has proven futile.

Arakan and Chin States – which contain some of the areas hardest hit by the flooding – are also the poorest states, where the potential for the poor to become poorer and the vulnerable to be left without means to cope are higher during sudden disasters. So far, two-thirds of the deaths linked to flooding are in Arakan State alone. Thousands of residents in Hakha, Chin State have been left in dire situations as landslides and unstable grounds have forced people out of the state capital and prevented aid workers from reaching the area by ground. As thousands run the risk of running out of water and food for days, airdrops of rice provided by the government are also failing to reach Hakha.

Local civil society organizations have been calling on the government to “facilitate aid and supplies to immediately reach affected areas of concern without discrimination,” as some accuse the government of neglecting some remote ethnic areas. The Civil Society Organizations Forum issued a statement calling on the Burma Government to “use the state budget transparently and methodically, and without political prejudice or corruption, to expend on aid for Myanmar people in need of disaster relief and humanitarian assistance.”

First and foremost, the government must take immediate steps to protect all those affected by the flood without discrimination, focusing on the particular needs of vulnerable groups such as the women, children, elderly, disabled, religious and ethnic minorities. The rescue, relief and reconstruction efforts must be inclusive and in line with internationally agreed humanitarian principles. The Burma Government, donors and the international community must cooperate with local organizations that are often in a better position to aid the most vulnerable communities. They must be empowered to lend their expertise, particularly during the relief and reconstruction efforts.

Furthermore, the Burma Government must take its response to Cyclone Nargis as the antithesis of how to deal with a humanitarian disaster. Initial refusal of international humanitarian aid, imprisonment of local aid workers, and worse still, offering food aid to victims in exchange for voting in favour of the 2008 Constitution in the referendum showed a callous disregard for the suffering of its own people.

With the elections looming in November, the Burma Government and political parties must place importance on the human lives at stake – not the votes that they may gain from supporting those who are the most vulnerable to enticement during a time of crisis. Echoing Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s recent statement, we must “deal with what we need to deal [with] now, and in the best way possible, to make sure that the future of our people, socially, economical and politically, is assured.”

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