Tuesday, 21 October 2008

With cyclone aid comes an imbalance in Myanmar (IHT)

A worker returning from the fields in Rakhine State, Myanmar. Many people here are stateless, unrecognized by the government because they are Muslim. (International Herald Tribune)

With cyclone aid comes an imbalance in Myanmar
By The International Herald Tribune
Monday, October 20, 2008
SITTWE, Myanmar: In some spots, the road that leads to Kobi Ramau's village looks as if it has more potholes than pavement.
Not that it matters too much to Ramau, a farmer and father of four: He does not have a car, let alone a bicycle. And Myanmar's military government bans him from traveling outside his district without a permit.
Like the more than 720,000 Muslims who live in Rakhine State, this rain-soaked western corner of Myanmar, Ramau is stateless. His parents and grandparents were born here in British colonial times, but the military government does not recognize him as a citizen.
Ramau's life is an extreme example of the deprivation, hunger and general poverty that many people in this country face. Soldiers expropriated Ramau's land a decade ago and took his 80 buffalo. He is now paid the equivalent of $25 a month by the military to till the land he once owned. "They took everything," he said.
But a few hundred miles southeast, in another low-lying, rice-growing area of Myanmar that was no better off - until recently - a very different picture has emerged.
The cyclone that ravaged Myanmar's Irrawaddy Delta five months ago has unexpectedly opened the door to foreign money and foreign aid workers who are leading projects to "rebuild better" the roads, schools, houses and water storage tanks that were destroyed or damaged during the storm.
After initial resistance by Myanmar's junta, dollars are cascading into the Delta on a scale that this country has perhaps never seen.
Britain, the European Union, the United States and Australia - all of which have long been considered the sworn enemies of the ruling junta - have led donors in a fund-raising effort that has so far provided $240 million, or about $100 for every person who survived Cyclone Nargis, an amount that the United Nations hopes to double in the coming months.
Aid workers say that this intensive rebuilding effort in the Delta, where only a small fraction of the country's population lives, has opened up the possibility to expanded humanitarian operations in the country.
But, in the here and now, the assistance to the Delta has created a stark imbalance in the country.
"There's a serious amount of money flowing into this country and it's all for Nargis victims," said Frank Smithuis, head of the aid group Médecins Sans Frontières in Myanmar, which tends to the sick both inside and out of the Delta. "That is great, but it is strange that nobody seems interested in the needs of the rest of the country."
The list of those in need of food and medical attention in Myanmar is long and distressing.
Here in this city overlooking the Bay of Bengal, a half-dozen men have as their only employment an umbrella repair business, fixing battered "made-in-China" models that would be tossed into the trash in neighboring countries.
A household survey carried out in June for UN agencies found a "worsening and alarming economic situation" in villages near the border with Bangladesh. With bad weather last year leading to crop failures, families cut back from three to two meals a day. Only 60 percent of boys and less than half of girls had "normal" body mass - the rest were severely malnourished. And only 12 percent of households had soap.
In northern Myanmar, erstwhile opium farmers who gave up the heroin business in recent years in exchange for promises that they would be given food aid have now returned to planting opium because they are hungry, aid officials say.
Across the country, out of a quarter of a million people infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, 80,000 are in urgent need of retroviral drugs and only 15,000 will receive them, according to Smithuis. "The others will die," he said.
In Chin State, near the border with India, villagers are suffering what has the ring of a biblical plague. Thousands of rats, attracted to a rare blooming of bamboo flowers, have eaten through rice fields and other crops. Farmers in some villages are now living off of wild tubers in the jungle.
"The rats ate everything," said Pyi Kyaw, a 38-year-old villager who rowed a boat loaded with bamboo and other timber for several days downstream to exchange the wood for large bags of rice. It will take nine days to row back home against the currents, he said.
For years, Western countries were reluctant to provide aid to Myanmar for fear that it would strengthen the grip of the junta and its repressive policies. But the shocking toll of the cyclone, which struck on May 2 and 3 and left an estimated 130,000 people dead or missing, was a watershed moment because Western governments believed that the plight of the victims overrode concerns about ways that the junta might benefit. Today, 26 international aid organizations are operating in one district of the Delta alone.
In past years Myanmar has received tiny levels of aid compared with its neighbors. In 2005, the latest year for which comparable data are available, Myanmar received $3 per person in aid compared with $9 per capita in Bangladesh, $38 in Cambodia, $49 in Laos and $22 in Vietnam.
The quandary for aid organizations is that assistance pledged for the Delta must be spent in the Delta, aid workers say. The World Food Program, a United Nations agency that delivers rice, beans, cooking oil and iodized salt, is fully funded through January for victims of the cyclone. But the organization will have to cut back programs in northern areas of the country because of an immediate shortfall of $11.2 million, partly caused by the increase in global food prices.
"We haven't been able to convince donors to give us money for projects in the northern areas," said Chris Kaye, the head of the Myanmar operations of the World Food Program.
The cyclone has also drained resources away from areas outside the Delta. Trucks, aid personnel and equipment were channeled to the cyclone-hit regions from northern areas of the country. And with a key rice-growing area in the Delta damaged by the storm the government forbade the World Food Program from buying cheaper locally produced rice, fearing food shortages. The United Nations is now forced to buy more expensive foreign rice, further straining budgets.
In perhaps the most stark example of the imbalance between the Delta and the rest of the country, impoverished villagers here along the border with Bangladesh have been forced by the government to donate money for the victims of Cyclone Nargis - a philanthropic gesture, couched as patriotic duty, they can hardly afford.
Ramau, the farmer, seems initially startled when asked what types of things he needs.
"We need so many things," he said, pausing to respond. "We have no money."

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