“There are no foreign lands. It is the traveler only who is foreign.” – Robert Louis Stevenson

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Aid in Myanmar

In Myanmar, aid is not as simple as it is portrayed in the media. Nor
is the situation, the government, the needs or the wants. I will not
deny that the government is as corrupt as any can be. Indonesia under
Suharto would not be a bad comparison. The scalping and gouging that
has occurred with the price of everything since the cyclone is typical
of this. As my landlady said, once the price of things goes up, it
stays up, and will never come back down. Sellers realise that they can
charge a higher price so greed sets in. There have been lots of
stories about the government collecting the aid for themselves, either
stockpiling it to sell (which I have seen--on the street near my
house, there have been trucks with aid sitting there for the past
week, going nowhere, except the warehouse in the compound next door),
or changing the aid agency's name to their own name (also something I
can verify has happened).

In the past week or so, I've heard of many aid trips that have made it
down to the delta areas, so if you heard that none is getting through,
that is absolutely false and exaggerated. However, not enough is
getting through that could due to the restrictions of road blocks and
government requirements, permits, restrictions, etc. Some of the tales
are horrific. The stories of dead carcasses contaminating water
supplies are true, although many townships, especially those closer to
Yangon, this has been remedied. The furthest away, such as in Labutta
township, are much worse off. The trauma of the people returning is
also really severe--enormous stress and guilt, mainly because of being
able to do so little, and losing workers in their agencies. The
problem is still the communication and aid organizing. There's still
no center coordinating it all. Big aid organizations (like the UN,
WFP, Red Cross, etc) only talk to the big aid organizations. NGOs only
talk to the NGOs. Small independent groups just keep on doing their
small independent projects. White plate vehicles are getting through,
as are smaller aid agencies' trips, but some are overloading certain
areas and ignoring others. Every single agency has gone through a
learning period where they just had no idea what they were doing, to
where they are now, acknowledging that they need to speak to each
township to find out the worst affected areas and find out their needs
and talk with other organizations. The monasteries have been amazing.
They are basically a civil order emergency system, and are functioning
as the refugee camps for all the villagers that have no homes. It's
interesting, though, just what the monasteries say about aid. They do
not want to be inundated with it, very wisely saying that they, (the
monasteries) don't really want people to stay there, so just a small
amount of aid is the right initiative--too much they would sell it,
after all. Most townships are saying they have sufficient food and
water (for the moment), but what they really want are building
materials and their livelihoods restored (boats in many communities
were destroyed). The large tank water storage facilities need to be
cleared and refilled, and the rice for this season needs to be planted
immediately (it will be harvested in October).

Interestingly enough, life in Yangon has resumed a semblance of
normalcy. I got electricity back at my house this week, and with it,
access to a water pump to get water as well. Being Yangon, the
electricity is still sporadic, but after none, any is appreciated!!
Ironically, oil rigs kept on pumping, life as usual, all through the
storm. The ports still lack jetties, but the port is clear. Some
poorer areas are still suffering, but businesses have reopened, and
the city is now just a shabbier, uglier version of it's old
ramshackle, dysfunctional self.

Saw a lot of maps today, most produced by the UN agencies. The eye of
the cyclone really did go right through the middle of Yangon!! Because
of it being high tide, and a full moon tide, the destruction in the
delta was due to the tide surge more than the waves, but as far east
as Mawlawmyine and Hpa-an had 1 in 7 trees down. There are some great
poliltical cartoons out there as well. I'll try and find the one that
we all like the best... a very subtle one about a wave that kills

Anyway, must go to sleep now as am headed out early to a relief agency
tomorrow, then to finalize things with my landlady. I'm out of my
house permanently now, so everything is coming together!!

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