April 19, 2009. A nine-year-old girl carries thatched palm leaves to be used for roofing. She is helping her aunt re-roof her house.

(New York) - One year after the devastation of Cyclone Nargis, the Burmese military government should release all those imprisoned for independently providing humanitarian aid to victims for criticizing the government's response, Human Rights Watch said today. On May 2, 2008, Cyclone Nargis struck Burma's Irrawaddy Delta region, killing an estimated 140,000 people and severely affecting 2.4 million others.

In the immediate aftermath of the cyclone, the government was slow to mobilize aid efforts or allow international relief agencies access to the devastated region. Since then, it has unfairly tried and imprisoned at least 21 community aid workers who sought to help cyclone survivors, including Burma's most famous comedian, Zargana.

"Basic freedoms for cyclone survivors are just as restricted as they were before the cyclone," said Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "Donors and friends of the military government, such as China, should press Burma's generals to free activists like Zargana who helped the survivors."

Zargana had organized hundreds of community aid workers to collect and distribute aid to cyclone-affected areas, and criticized the response of the ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) in interviews to the foreign media. The authorities arrested him in June 2008 on various charges, including causing "public mischief." After an unfair trial, he was sentenced to 59 years in prison, since reduced to 35 years, and is held at distant Myintkyinar prison, apparently to keep him far from his family. His family reports that he is in poor health and is being denied adequate medical treatment.

Human Rights Watch said that while relief agencies have worked tirelessly to provide assistance, the Burmese government needed to dramatically increase its own contributions to cyclone recovery, and to do so in a transparent manner.

After Cyclone Nargis struck last year, the Burmese government obstructed initial efforts by humanitarian agencies to send in relief and gain access to affected communities. It denied visas to foreign humanitarian aid workers with the experience to respond to emergencies. It refused permission to nearby naval vessels from the United States, the United Kingdom, and France to offload their supplies, wasting valuable time and leading to unnecessary suffering.

The situation improved in late May after the UN secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, visited the delta and the United Nations and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) brokered a deal with the Burmese government. They established the Tripartite Core Group (TCG), which became the central vehicle for coordinating aid and ensuing recovery efforts. Since then, access for aid and humanitarian workers has gradually improved, though some restrictions remain in place.

Imprisoned Activists Should Be Freed

Immediately after the cyclone, Burmese civil society groups, Buddhist monks, Christian charity organizations, and local staff from international agencies already operating in Burma responded in affected areas, often having to circumvent official restrictions on movement and access under extremely difficult circumstances. Without their work, the disaster response would have cost many more lives.

The government's response to these efforts in ensuing months was to arrest at least 21 of those involved, including Zargana. 

Other community aid workers currently in prison include:

  • Eine Khaing Oo, a 24-year-old reporter for Eco Vision Journal, who was sentenced to two years in prison and Kyaw Kyaw Thein, a former editor of Weekly Journal, who was sentenced to seven years. The two journalists were arrested in July 2008 after bringing cyclone survivors to Rangoon and interpreting for them at meetings with the International Committee of the Red Cross and the United Nations Development Programme.
  • Min Thein Tun, who was arrested in July 2008 and sentenced to 17 years in prison in March 2009 after a closed trial. A Burmese migrant worker in Malaysia, Min Thein Tun had returned to Burma following the cyclone to distribute aid, using funds he had collected from donors in Malaysia.
  • U Nay Win, a doctor, who was arrested and imprisoned, along with his daughter, Phyo Phyo Aung, on June 14, 2008, for organizing the collection of bodies of cyclone victims for burial. They had started an organization called "The Group that Buries the Dead." U Nay Win had previously been imprisoned from 1989 to 2005 for political activities. Both were charged in February 2009 under provisions of the Unlawful Associations Act, which bans any "organizations that attempt, instigate, incite, abet, or commit acts that may in any way disrupt law and order, peace and tranquility, or safe and secure communications ... or ... that attempt, instigate, incite, abet or commit acts that may affect or disrupt the regularity of state machinery." Phyo Phyo Aung was also convicted of making statements causing "public mischief."
  • Remaining aid workers imprisoned and either sentenced or still awaiting trial include: Kyaw Kyaw Thant, Thet Zaw, and Aung Kyaw San, journalists; Myat Thu, a former political prisoner; Tin Tin Cho and Yin Yin Wyne, members of the 88 Generation Students group; Lin Htet Naing, Phone Pyeit Kywe, Shein Yazar Tun, and Wai Lin Aung, student activists; Cho Cho Tin, Ni Myo Hlaing, and Theingi Oo, all members of the opposition National League for Democracy; Zaw Naing, an actor; and Nyan Tun, a local aid worker.

"The plight of aid workers and activists imprisoned for shining a spotlight on government indifference to Cyclone Nargis survivors demonstrates the military government's hypocrisy," said Pearson. "The government is happy to accept money and aid from abroad when it can take the credit, while relentlessly crushing determined individuals who sought to assist desperate survivors on their own."

Government Should Commit Aid

In February, the Tripartite Core Group released the Post-Nargis Recovery and Preparedness Plan (PONREPP), which its framers contend is a "people centered approach to promote productive lives, healthy lives, and protected lives." The plan requires funding of US$690 million, of which US$300 million has been raised so far. According to the plan, the Burmese government should match this funding to ensure an estimated more than US$1 billion for reconstruction. However, no public information has been made available about the precise amount the government has committed or has actually contributed.

Human Rights Watch said that the Burmese government should show its commitment by making a substantial contribution to reconstruction efforts. The government has an estimated US$3.5 billion in foreign reserves and receives an estimated US$150 million in monthly gas exports revenues. It is not clear how much money the government has spent on reconstruction, even as it funds infrastructure projects elsewhere in Burma, such as its reclusive new capital at Naypidaw with lavish Buddhist temples, government offices, multi-lane highways and a newly renovated airport.

Burmese activists have long criticized the government for giving priority to military spending and vanity projects, such as Naypidaw, over food, health care or education for Burma's large numbers of poor. For example, according to the most recent available statistics, the military government spends less than US$200,000 per year for national HIV/AIDS projects, despite a widespread epidemic throughout the country and major efforts by international organizations and local community groups to provide prevention services and to help people living with HIV.

"The military rulers are notorious for stuffing their pockets instead of devoting government resources to the welfare of its people," said Pearson. "Donors should insist that the Burmese government use some of its own resources to help finance cyclone reconstruction efforts."

Donors Should Ensure Aid Reaches the Most Vulnerable

In July 2008, Human Rights Watch released a detailed open letter to donors calling on the Burmese government to allow necessary access for humanitarian agencies so they can deliver aid according to international standards of impartiality, accountability, and community participation. Human Rights Watch urged the international community to pledge funds necessary for successful recovery efforts, while ensuring that aid reaches those in most need. While much has improved in the Irrawaddy Delta, those principles remain salient today and should guide aid efforts. 

Human Rights Watch said that donors should ensure that Burmese government-backed organizations such as the Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA) and private companies with close ties to the military leadership, particularly those on US, Australian and European Union sanctions lists, are not involved in internationally funded reconstruction efforts.

The USDA is a mass-based governmental organization deeply implicated in political repression and human rights abuses in Burma. In the past, the government has often tried to require international humanitarian agencies operating in the country to cooperate with the USDA. Human Rights Watch has long expressed concern about its involvement in human rights abuses. During the September 2007 mass protests in Rangoon, USDA militia groups and a related militia, the Swan Arr Shin ("Masters of Force"), were widely used to detain, beat, and intimidate peaceful protesters. UN agencies have refused to work with the USDA on past development projects because of its involvement in such abuses.

While a great deal of time and money has been spent on the Irrawaddy Delta, Human Rights Watch said that the humanitarian situation in other parts of Burma remains critical. Burma was ranked 132 out of 177 nations in the latest UN Human Development Report. Grave poverty needing increased aid and development continue to be a critical problem in northwestern Arakan state, Chin state, and conflict areas of eastern Burma. According to a recent survey by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), and the World Food Programme (WFP), these areas have acute poverty and malnutrition problems. However, government restrictions on aid workers and their projects make it difficult to expand relief operations that Burma urgently needs to address the worsening health and livelihood situation produced by repressive military rule.

Government travel and operational regulations imposed in February 2006 make approvals for projects a drawn-out process, and government personnel must accompany foreign aid workers on all field visits. The International Committee of the Red Cross has not been permitted to carry out its important work of independently visiting prisons and monitoring ethnic conflict zones since early 2006 because of government restrictions.

"Concerned donors and Burmese activists have hoped that the improvements in access and cooperation with the government in cyclone-devastated areas, would lead to improvements in other parts of Burma," said Pearson. "Sadly, there is no sign that such improvements are taking place elsewhere."