UK: ‘Burmese junta must turn its promises into action’

BURMA was promised millions of pounds worth of cyclone aid yesterday – if the junta keeps its promise to allow foreign aid workers and assessment teams into the country.

“The [Burmese] authorities must turn promises into action. The eyes of the world are watching,” said Douglas Alexander, the International Development Secretary, after a landmark aid conference in Rangoon. The Department for International Dev-elopment is to send 11 flights to the region, carrying much-needed materials for families who lost their homes in the disaster.

Mr Alexander added: “We need to accelerate efforts to get aid to those that need it – that means planes and helicopters in the air, trucks on the roads and boats on the rivers.”

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

The United States, which deems Burma an “outpost of tyranny”, said it was ready to offer more than the 10.3 million aid sent after the 2 May cyclone, which left 134,000 people dead or missing and another 2.4 million destitute.

But Scot Marciel, the US envoy to south-east Asia, said: “In order to do so, the government must allow international disaster assistance experts to conduct thorough assessments of the situation.”

Three weeks after Cyclone Nargis pounded the Irrawaddy delta, the United Nations said three in four of those most in need have yet to receive any help and that hunger and disease could send the death toll soaring further.

The junta, by contrast, claims the relief phase of the disaster is already over. Thein Sein, Burma’s prime minister, thanked the 500 delegates from 50 countries at the conference for the help given so far, and said more would be welcome “provided there are no strings attached nor politicisation involved”.

China and other Asian countries said it was important to keep aid and politics separate in dealing with a regime that has defied all pressure to loosen its vice-like grip on power.

The cyclone, one of the worst ever to hit Asia, has forced the reclusive generals to talk to the outside world, but they have managed only in part to overcome their innate distrust of anything foreign.

Mr Than promised the visiting UN secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, that all foreign aid workers would be let in, but there is little chance of US and French navy ships waiting near the delta being given permission to fly in relief supplies.

Despite the clear differences of opinion at the meeting, Mr Ban said it had been important in “galvanising the international community’s will to support Myanmar” – a country normally held up as a world pariah. Burma’s military regime has said it needs the equivalent of 5 billion for reconstruction.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Meanwhile, there were some signs that Mr Than’s orders to ease restrictions on aid workers were filtering through, with checkpoints being removed on some roads. However, the full picture is unclear. One European aid official in Rangoon said: “So far it’s been bits and pieces. We don’t even know what aid the government has delivered, so we can’t draw any conclusions.”

Confrontation is the wrong way to open the door to aid for survivors of cyclone

Paul Strachan tells of the horror and hardship he has seen since arriving in Burma a week ago

THE monsoon has struck and it is raining all day, every day and will continue like this until October; with high winds and heavy rainfall. They will not see the sun for the next five to six months.

These people have no shelter at all; they have no dry clothes. The young, the weak and the old are particularly vulnerable. People are so demoralised that they have lost interest in taking on any activity, unusual for such industrious people.

Imagine if you had spent the last two weeks soaking wet and up to your knees in water, nothing to eat or drink, with your family dying all around you, your livelihood gone, your home blown away, weakened with dysentery and influenza.

Like most non-governmental organisations (NGOs) working here in Burma, Save the Children and Merlin cannot send foreign aid workers to the affected areas. But from Rangoon they can supply and assist local teams of qualified and experienced doctors and health workers. In my experience, Burmese medics – who have worked with poor equipment and few facilities for 50 years – are the most brilliant field medics in the world.

Contrary to press reports, a good deal of aid is getting through. The big US cargo planes are still being prevented from landing, but the organisations we are working with all have their own channels. Commercial air freight into the country is working normally and a good deal of aid supply is coming through this way.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Most necessities are available here – there is a ready supply of freight from China, India and Thailand – and yet cyclone survivors are being given bottles of mineral water flown in from the UK when local companies are offering excellent products.

Supplies can be sourced here easily and far more cheaply than flying them in. This is mainland south-east Asia – Burma is surrounded by mass-producing, low-cost, tiger economies. This is not “darkest Africa”.

Village people here are mistrustful of foreign medicines and would prefer Burmese traditional medicines. And they find the high-energy biscuits being doled out by the aid agencies unpalatable and demoralising. Traditional staples such as rice and fish paste are both readily available just outside the disaster zone – indeed, last week, at the Thilawa docks, the government was loading ships with rice for export to Bangladesh. There is no shortage of rice.

There is no need to fly food in, just money, which is lighter, to buy simple essentials.

While the military regime may be incompetent to deal with the crisis, we should not under-estimate the resourcefulness of other Burmese institutions. Local firms, associations, clubs and schools have been collecting funds and goods to send to the needy. Their biggest problem is they can not deliver beyond the distance of a day trip, about 90 miles.

With so many political issues going on, the NGOs have had to learn how things work – you need a Burmese front organisation and the NGO takes the back seat. This is now working – and timely, as a continued local-only response would be impossible to sustain in the long term. These mainly urban, middle-class people do not have unlimited resources.

One obstacle to the delivery of aid has been international criticism. The more the world criticises the generals, the tougher their stance. In Burma anything can be achieved if you go about things in the right way. You do not confront. You pat them on the back, tell them they are doing a great job and ask if you can help. Then they let you in and you do your own thing. This is how 50 million Burmese have lived for nearly 50 years – don’t confront; circumvent.

We have prioritised our effort to give the people some hope so they can try to re build their lives. A main need is shelter – survivors have been camped in groups of 1,000 to 1,500 people.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

We met the man who built our ships, whom I have known for more than ten years. The firm will design a simple kit village hall, 100ft long and 30ft wide. The cost of each hall is 5,000. Such shelters, raised off the ground, will give people a place to get dry and stay dry, a place to cook and sleep until the monsoon abates.

None of these ideas is my own, all are the result of brainstorming among our Pandaw team here. Most of our guys are on the ships, in the office we have a very small team left. Thank you to all the people sending us money – it is working.

• Paul Strachan, an Edinburgh businessman, has loaned two cruise boats to the charities Save The Children and Merlin for use as floating hospitals. He arrived in Burma last week to help with the relief effort. To donate to the Pandaw appeal, you can e-mail [email protected] or visit