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Aceh model suggests long-term hope for Burma

Nargis reliefSome people remain reluctant to donate aid money to Burma following the devastation wreaked by Cyclone Nargis, fearing it will be pocketed by the generals. But Caritas Australia, the Catholic aid agency, is achieving impressive things on the ground, funnelling funds directly to its networks deep in the heart of the country.

Working this way, Caritas estimates it will have distributed food, household living items, shelter and medical care to 60,000 people in the hardest hit regions within the next few weeks. Three hundred local volunteers have been trained to provide practical help. Refuge has been offered in parish centres and food distributed from them.

Many more than two million are suffering. The assistance being provided is not enough, but it is something.

Like the heads of other major aid agencies, Caritas Australia's CEO, Jack de Groot, is relieved that the generals have finally relented and allowed the agencies to go in. But despite this, he is not optimistic.

While international humanitarian agencies have been operating in Burma for many years, in the lead-up to the farcical constitutional referendum this month, the generals were squeezing these agencies out. This was despite the fact they provided food relief to malnourished people and helped control HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis.

The regime certainly didn't want the international attention it has now attracted as a result of the cyclone.

There is a lot the agencies can do. But Mr de Groot now fears that permission to enter will be a token gesture and that after an inappropriately short period, the agencies will be kicked out again. This despite the reality that Burma now needs long-term help to recover from the disaster.

The World Food Program (WFP) reported, even before Cyclone Nargis, that malnutrition of children under five was at 32 per cent and that there were at least five million people in Burma who were short of food.

And before the cyclone, the Thai Burma Border Consortium (TBBC) was $7 million short of funds to feed existing refugees — 254,000 people massing at the Thai Border, and in other places.

'We fear that due to the destruction by salt water of the delta lands — the rice bowl of Burma — thousands upon thousands of people will starve,' says Mr de Groot.

'Already, we are hearing stories from farmers who are frightened that their families, having survived the cyclone, will now die of starvation. And as they starve, they will try to escape to countries such as India and Thailand, creating regional tension.

'Another fear is that the generals will isolate the ethnic minorities of Burma ... Already, no-one is allowed to travel into those regions where the Karen and Mon people live. We fear they will be isolated further and their survival threatened because it is not a priority of the government to protect and feed these people.

'Our sense is that as soon as the emergency phase is over, access will once again be denied to aid agencies and NGOs, with unspeakable consequences for the people of Burma.'

There is a model for a closed community to be given access to emergency relief following a natural disaster, leading to support for desperately needed long-term rehabilitation, despite pre-existing political tensions between a people and its central government.

During the 2005 tsunami, 200,000 lives were claimed in the Indonesian province of Aceh. Tensions between the Aceh people and the central Indonesian government were at an all time high. There had been fears that bloody clashes would escalate.

After the tsunami, the Indonesian government hesitantly allowed international aid agencies to help with emergency relief, in the first instance, and later with the gradual rehabilitation of the province.

Trust was eventually built between the international aid agencies and the Indonesian government, resulting in a peace agreement being signed between the Indonesian Government and the Free Aceh movement, GAM.

Sadly, at the moment it seems unlikely that such a course of action will be followed in Burma. The world holds its breath, now that aid has been allowed in. But the prospects are bleak.

If international aid agencies were allowed into Burma, not just to fix the immediate damage but to overcome the awesome long-term problems facing the country, this would give hope that the international scrutiny that occurred in Aceh and transformed the experience of its people could happen in Burma.

This would be the silver lining of the cloud that is Cyclone Nargis.

Donate online to Caritas Australia's Burma cyclone appeal, or call 1800 024 413.


Margaret RiceMargaret Rice is a Sydney-based freelance journalist. She spent two weeks 'embedded' with Caritas Australia, helping to manage its communications about its Burma relief work.


Flickr image by TZA

Topic tags: Margaret rice, cyclone nargis, caritas australia, international aid agencies, emergency relief, myanmar



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