The faint promise suggested by the relative freedoms granted to Burmese civil society after Cyclone Nargis is fading, as the ruling junta imposes new restrictions ahead of the scheduled 2010 elections.
In a report released today titled “I Want to help my Own People”– State Control and Civil Society in Burma after Cyclone Nargis,” Human Rights Watch said that the junta “continues to deny basic freedoms and places undue restrictions on aid agencies, despite significant gains in rehabilitating areas devastated by Cyclone Nargis two years ago.”
Even then, it took what Human Rights Watch described as “an unprecedented diplomatic agreement” between the ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), the United Nations and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean)—one month after Nargis struck the Irrawaddy Delta—to enable international assistance reach the estimated 2.4 to 3 million people affected by the disaster, which left more than140,000 dead.
Prior to that deal, the junta attempted to block assistance and foisted what was widely dismissed as a sham constitutional referendum on the millions of people struggling to survive after the disaster.
“The SPDC put its own security concerns ahead of the needs of survivors,” according to HRW Burma researcher David Mathieson, speaking at the report’s launch in Bangkok on Thursday.
As the junta prioritized the referendum, shunning people in dire need of help, what HRW describes as “inspirational” local aid groups and community organizations emerged to do what they could, as international aid workers awaited visas in Bangkok or were restricted to Rangoon once they eventually arrived in Burma.
Brian Casey, an aid worker with the emergency relief organisation GOAL, compared his experience of trying to assist people in Burma after Nargis with working in the much-criticized Haiti relief operation. He said that Haiti’s infrastructure was destroyed by the January 2010 earthquake. “Combined with the impact of nature and concerns about security, this obstructed the aid effort,” he said.
In contrast, the obstacles in Burma were man-made, he said: “The government got in the way big-time.”
“In the first nine days in Port-au-Prince, despite the logistical hurdles, we were able to get more done than we did in four months trying to help in Burma, where we were never allowed leave Rangoon.”
GOAL managed to get some relief distributed via local contacts, but that proved difficult. “Our local partners were very nervous about working with a foreign organization,” Casey recalled. “They wanted to help, many lost friends or family during the cyclone and understood the needs.” But many resigned, citing intimidation and monitoring by the Burmese military, he said.
The dangers for Burmese aid workers are real. More than 20 people who were active in Cyclone relief effort remain in jail, including well-known activist and comedian Zargana who was given a 35-year jail term. They comprise a fraction of the more than 2,000 political prisoners—including 12 members of parliament elected in Burma’s 1990 poll and a number of journalistsdetained in the country, even as foreign governments call for the release of all prisoners of conscience in Burma in the run-up to elections scheduled for later this year.
The progress made in humanitarian relief in the Irrawaddy Delta region have not been met elsewhere in Burma. Deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division Elaine Pearson said that “the gains have not been matched by the rest of the country, where millions of Burmese are living in unnecessary poverty fueled by systematic corruption and repression.”
Hundreds of thousands of Burmese, many from ethnic minority groups in the country’s borderlands, have been driven from their homes by the army, with millions more living abroad as refugees or migrant workers. Despite billions in oil and gas revenue, the junta spends less than 2 percent of national income on health and education, while an estimated 40 percent of GDP going to the military. With ethnic militias snubbing the junta’s demand that they stand down and join state border guards, there is a high possibility of violent conflict in Shan state and in other ethnic minority regions, which could in turn spark a new or heightened humanitarian crisis within Burma.
The army is set to retain control, under a civilian guise, after the upcoming election. Senior military figures are resigning, facilitating a dress-code makeover from uniform to suit. However, with the main opposition groups and many ethnic parties boycotting the elections, which will not, it appears, include any foreign observers, internationaol groups have concluded the lections will not be free or fair.
After the Nargis disaster, HRW believes that the junta used the lure of aid as means to get people to vote for the constitutional referendum, which provided the military government a legal basis for the upcoming elections.
Asked by The Irrawaddy if there is any evidence that something similar is likely, or already being done, to cajole pro-regime votes during the 2010 election, HRW clarified that it did not have access to regions outside the Irrawaddy Delta for the purposes of researching the report, but pointed to the issuance of temporary permits to Rohingya in northern Rakhine state. Muslim Rohingya are denied Burmese citizenship, but the permits will enable them to vote in the upcoming election.
The election itself may prompt more clampdowns and tighter restrictions on civil society— local and foreign—operating in Burma. UN staff interviewed in Bangkok told HRW that permits and work visas for staff in Burma are being held up or denied.
The Tripartite Group set up to facilitate the post-Nargis international aid delivery is being wound down. It all points to a much diminished foreign presence in the country as elections loom. In a speech to mark the country’s Armed Forces Day on March 27, regime leader Sen-Gen Than Shwe implicitly ruled out the prospect of foreign observers to monitor the election.
He said: “During the transition to an unfamiliar system, countries with greater experience usually interfere and take advantage for their own interests,” he said. “For this reason, it is an absolute necessity to avoid relying on external powers.” Indonesia previously requested that a southeast Asian monitoring team be allowed access to the country, which the junta turned down.
On Monday, the EU renewed its sanctions on the regime, citing a lack of progress in key areas, such as the release of political prisoners and the continued oppression of ethnic minorities.
HRW called for international sanctions to be maintained, with the caveat that more international co-ordination is needed to make them more effective, given the buffer role played by China, India and Asean member-states that do business with the junta.
One of the criticisms of sanctions is that they limit the scale and nature of aid sent into Burma. There is perhaps good reason, given that Nargis led to numerous examples of the military stealing aid, or rebranding foreign assistance as its own.
However, HRW advocated that donors should push for greater humanitarian access to the people in need inside Burma, pointing to the recently amended Australian assistance policy that purports to direct aid directly to community-based organizations and groups.
“Cross-border assistance should be considered as well,” said Mathieson, as this could go directly to impoverished ethnic minorities and bypass the junta’s oversight.Show