More Bureaucracy Adds to Government’s Interference in Aid Efforts
June 13, 2008
The government should be streamlining aid efforts to cyclone victims, not slowing down aid with these new rules.
Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch

(New York) - New Burmese government guidelines on humanitarian agencies will further hamper the delivery of aid to the victims of Cyclone Nargis, Human Rights Watch said today.

“The government should be streamlining aid efforts to cyclone victims, not slowing down aid with these new rules,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Once again the generals are placing control of the population over the needs of the population.”

The new guidelines, issued on June 9, state that all United Nations agencies and international and domestic relief groups must receive travel permission and aid distribution clearance from several layers of authority. Permission is required from relevant government ministries, and the joint Burmese, UN, and Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Tripartite Core Group, which is acting as a coordinating agency. Township Coordination Committees, which act as a local bureaucracy to direct aid deliveries, must be kept fully informed. Sources in Rangoon say that permission also must be sought from divisional and local level military commanders, and that Burmese officials must accompany all travel by foreign aid workers to the Irrawaddy Delta.

Responding to a meeting held on June 10 in Rangoon announcing the guidelines, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies said the humanitarian community was expressing concerns that “additional steps for seeking approval may unnecessarily delay the relief response.”

Nearly seven weeks after Cyclone Nargis, only 1.3 million people of an estimated 2.4 million people affected by the cyclone have been reached by international humanitarian agencies, including the United Nations. By June 10, the government had granted 195 visas to UN staff. The World Food Programme still has only two international staff in the area to coordinate operations. A 250-person assessment team, comprised of Burmese, ASEAN and UN officials, has started its work to coordinate health, food and shelter needs, but will only make a report at the next meeting of the Tripartite Core Group on June 25.

Since it made its commitments to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, the Burmese government has been inconsistent in its approach to aid, allowing some aid and workers into the delta region while blocking others, including some Burmese individuals and groups. According to the United Nations, some international aid organizations have reported being turned away at police checkpoints despite possessing authorization documents, which were then withdrawn without explanation. Other agencies have reported few difficulties in their areas of operation.

Human Rights Watch said that it continues to receive reports of official interference in the delivery of aid. One foreigner who recently visited affected areas south of Rangoon told Human Rights Watch that he counted three police and military checkpoints on a river searching boats, with soldiers taking rice and cooking oil as bribes to permit the boats through. All of this aid was from local civil society organizations, much of it being distributed with the supervision of Buddhist monks.

“The reality on the ground often differs sharply from government promises to allow aid,” Adams said. “Diplomats, the UN, and ASEAN need to keep a close eye on aid delivery and sound the alarm if the government improperly interferes.”

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