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Burma: After Cyclone, Repression Impedes Civil Society and Aid

Humanitarian Space Across Country Again Narrowing Ahead of 2010 Polls

(Bangkok) - The Burmese government continues to deny basic freedoms and place undue restrictions on aid agencies despite significant gains in rehabilitating areas devastated by Cyclone Nargis two years ago, Human Rights Watch said in a new report released today.

Human Rights Watch called for renewed international pressure on the Burmese government to gain the release of imprisoned local aid workers and other political prisoners, and to ensure humanitarian aid reaches the entire country.

"Two years after one of the world's worst natural disasters, local aid workers still feel the brunt of continued repression by the military authorities," said Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "Intense international pressure pushed the military government to open the door to foreign aid agencies, but Burma's generals have kept it shut for domestic critics, many of whom remain in prison for speaking out for fellow citizens in need."

The 102-page report, "‘I Want to Help My Own People': State Control and Civil Society in Burma after Cyclone Nargis," based on 135 interviews with cyclone survivors, aid workers, and other eyewitnesses, details the Burmese military government's response to Nargis and its implications for human rights and development in Burma today. The report describes the government's attempts to block assistance in the desperate three weeks after the cyclone, which struck Burma's Irrawaddy Delta on May 2, 2008, and the concerted response from increasingly assertive Burmese civil society groups to overcome government restrictions to providing assistance. The report details continuing violations of rights to free expression, association, and movement against Burmese aid workers and their organizations by the ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC).  

Cyclone Nargis killed more than 140,000 people and severely affected 2.4 million others in the Irrawaddy Delta and former capital city of Rangoon. In the immediate aftermath of the cyclone, the Burmese military government delayed and obstructed the international relief effort and even increased its repression as it pushed ahead with a sham constitutional referendum on May 10 and 24, 2008.

The impasse on international assistance ended only after an unprecedented diplomatic agreement on May 31, 2008, between the SPDC, the United Nations, and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).  This arrangement facilitated an unprecedented influx of humanitarian assistance to cyclone-affected areas, including the presence of local and international aid workers who now enjoy improved access to provide humanitarian relief.

While this opening was welcome, Human Rights Watch pointed out that there are continuing difficulties of reconstruction in the delta including access to water and sanitation, housing, health needs and livelihoods which especially affect the area's farming and fishing communities. The SPDC is failing to adequately support reconstruction efforts that benefit the population, contributing only paltry levels of aid despite having vast sums at its disposal from lucrative natural gas sales.

Humanitarian organizations told Human Rights Watch that hopes for a significant expansion of international aid throughout Burma after Cyclone Nargis have not been realized, with humanitarian space throughout the country again narrowing ahead of elections likely to be held in late 2010. Continued restraints on the delivery of aid and oppressive election regulations targeting opposition political parties highlight the military government's national security mindset that emphasizes maintenance of control over the well-being of its citizens.

"The humanitarian needs of Burma's people for food, clean water, and basic health care are immense because the military government has for so long mismanaged the economy and put stringent conditions on aid," said Pearson. "The good news is that after Nargis, the capabilities of Burmese relief workers have grown to help fill this gap. The bad news is that gains in the cyclone affected area have not been matched in the rest of the country, where millions of Burmese are living in unnecessary poverty fueled by systematic corruption and repression."

The report also describes how in the immediate weeks after Nargis, the SPDC pushed ahead with a constitutional referendum with rigged results at the expense of efforts by ordinary Burmese to assist survivors. In the face of the government's callous response, Burmese civil society groups and individuals raised money, collected supplies, and traveled to the badly affected parts of the Irrawaddy Delta to help survivors in shattered villages.

In the ensuing months, the SPDC arrested scores of Burmese activists and journalists who publicly spoke out about the government's poor response to Nargis. More than 20 people active in cyclone relief remain in prison today, including Burma's famous comedian, Zargana, who received a 35-year sentence. Human Rights Watch continues its campaign, 2100 in 2010: Free Burma's Political Prisoners calling for the immediate release of these prisoners and other political prisoners.

"The response of Burmese civil society to Nargis has been inspirational, but it is a disgrace that outspoken relief workers are imprisoned with harsh sentences," Pearson said. "Ahead of the 2010 elections, the international community needs to speak with one voice about the need for Burma's leaders to release Zargana, other aid workers, and the more than 2,100 political prisoners in the country."

Selected accounts from cyclone survivors and Burmese and international aid workers interviewed for the report:

"Nargis was the worst experience of my life. The last thing I remember is the lightning coming together with a strong wind and later a giant wave covered my daughter and me while we were running to the monastery. Then we were separated. I was washed away by the wave and became unconscious. When I came around, there were no clothes on my body and I could not walk as I had no strength. Beside me there was a dead body. I was lying like that for two days I think. I tried very hard to look for my daughter. Later people with a boat rescued me. There was no warning about the storm."

- "May Khin," a 45-year-old woman survivor of Cyclone Nargis from Laputta township

"When Cyclone Nargis struck, there was no authority visible even in Rangoon, because there was so much damage, and it was clear that the authorities couldn't meet the needs of the people so they decided to stay away. This was alarming to the public - suddenly we found no soldiers and no local authorities on the street. People had to rely solely on themselves, but we had never found ourselves in such a situation."

-"Myo Nyunt," a Burmese community aid worker interviewed by Human Rights Watch in Rangoon, March 2010.

"I want to save my own people. That's why we go with any donations we can get. But the government doesn't like our work. It is not interested in helping people. It just wants to tell the world and the rest of the country that everything is under control and that it has already saved its people."

- Comedian and community aid worker Zargana, interviewed by Burmese exiled media days before his arrest in Rangoon on June 4.

"I have no idea what the constitution is. But we did vote after Nargis. We were told just to cast ‘Yes' vote. I don't know how the result came out. At the time, people were struggling hard to survive. We just did what we were told."

- "Ma Mei Mei," a young woman from Dedaye township describing the constitutional referendum three weeks after Cyclone Nargis.

"The experience in the delta hasn't made any difference to access to the rest of the country at all. But the experience of Nargis has changed the relationship between the aid groups and some individuals in the government and has developed trust. But we're just not sure how high up. This hasn't improved access to other parts of the country in our experience."

- Head of major international aid agency based in Rangoon, Human Rights Watch interview, Rangoon, March 2010.

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