Soon after floods and landslides killed 68 people and displaced thousands a month ago in western Myanmar, the prime minister and two other ministers went to assess the damage first-hand.
They delegated duties for aid delivery. They greenlighted humanitarian shipments. Minister of Social Welfare U Maung Maung Swe met local and international NGOs to brief them on the government response, hear their assessments and “thank [them] for their support”.
This is not the ruling military government of yesteryear, when only a visit from UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon - three weeks after Cyclone Nargis struck in May 2008, leaving 140,000 dead - could secure international aid workers unfettered access to the battered Ayeyarwady Delta region.
This is the post-Nargis junta.
“The government’s response capacity has much improved since Nargis. The government has shown willingness to work with the UN and NGOs,” said Bhairaja Panday, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) representative in Myanmar. “The government has shown more confidence in dealing with the aid community and now understands better how the latter functions.”
It is far from a perfect union, with many aid workers grumbling about restrictions on travel outside Yangon and nervous of openly criticizing the junta for fear of being shut out of the country altogether.
Yet judging by the junta’s actions - not only after the landslides, but also with respect to policies - a fragile trust has coalesced between the government and international aid workers.
“The relationship between NGOs and the UN agencies and the government on substantive policies has gotten much better in the five years since I got here,” said Andrew Kirkwood, Myanmar director of Save the Children.
Two steps forward… sometimes
Kirkwood pointed to HIV, forced labour and child rights programmes as concrete signs of better cooperation for the benefit of the people of Myanmar.
For example, trafficked children picked up in Thailand are now safely repatriated and no longer charged with illegal migration, Kirkwood said.
The government has also given its blessing for a forced labour and underage military recruitment complaints desk run by the UN International Labour Organization (ILO).
Still, challenges remain. With the exception of the cyclone-hit delta, visas and travel permits were just as difficult to get as before, aid workers said.
A staff member of an international health NGO, who spoke on condition of anonymity, complained that the government processed mandatory operating licence applications at a snail’s pace.
“Although we are under the process of renewal, we can do our work under the previous (memorandum of understanding), but low profile. We cannot scale up; we cannot extend to other areas, but we are still working,” he said.
In some cases, international aid workers are barred from areas where help is needed most.
During severe flooding in many parts of Myanmar in 1998, “the government restricted information from the affected area, as a policy,” said Win Zin Oo, the director of humanitarian and emergency affairs for World Vision. “At the outset of the Nargis response, the policy of the government was ‘we can do [this] by ourselves’.
“Now, the approach of inviting international agencies for assistance can be seen as change, due to the humanitarian space created by cooperation during the Nargis response.”
Willing to cooperate
Kirkwood, of Save the Children, recalled that during the annual water festival in April 2009, a cyclone looked to be headed for Northern Rakhine State. Everyone across the country was on holiday, but the government called to set up a meeting to plan a joint assessment and response mission. The storm narrowly missed Myanmar and hit neighbouring Bangladesh.
“That, to me, was a great indicator of where we’ve come since the tsunami [in December 2004]. I was here when the tsunami happened as well, and that kind of cooperation wasn’t there,” Kirkwood said.
In the case of the recent landslides, the government issued its assessment of the situation in Northern Rakhine State, heard the UNHCR and NGOs’ take and then adjusted its own accordingly.
“They were not only saying you have to go by our assessment. They wanted us to share information with them on our findings,” said Panday of UNHCR.
For Northern Rakhine State, the government has mobilized key ministries to manage the aid, agreed to facilitate shipments and passed out contact names, focal points and phone numbers, said Vincent Hubin, deputy head of office for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
“They are open to receiving support and are continuing to engage. This is exactly the sign that the cooperation built after Nargis is continuing. We have engagement.”
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