Even as the military rulers of Burma (Myanmar) completed a general election in November 2010 and a new so-called democratic regime is installed in the poverty stricken country, millions of Burmese are still living in terrible conditions in the cyclones Nargis and Giri affected areas, with many without pure drinking water and food or proper shelter.
The lives of hundred thousand poor Burmese women have not changed though there are some plastic changes like the release of pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest and many other from jails, regular sittings of parliamentarians in their new capital Nay Pyi Taw and so on.
Burma receives international media headlines with the flawed constitution and electoral laws that finally prevented the pro-democracy icon Suu Kyi to take part in the November 2010 polls. Her party National League for Democracy, which recorded massive victory in the last general election in 1990- but denied power by the junta- even faced forced dissolution as it did not register with the election commission as a mark of protest. The recent visit of Burmese President Thein Sein to India on October 12 -15, 2011 was an attempt to improve its tie with the largest democracy of the globe and also enhance the Southeast Asian country’s image as a welfare nation. But the ground reality remains almost the same.
Since the day when the devastating tropical cyclone Nargis struck Burma (Myanmar) on May 2, 2008, the women survivors remain worst sufferers. Despite the fact that three full years passed since fateful night, the relief from international agencies, originally blocked by the then military regime, remains sporadic, paltry and tragically late, those all compiled to the continued agony for the poor Burmese people primarily women and children. The cyclone, originating in the Bay of Bengal, ripped a trail of destruction across the Irrawaddy and Rangoon divisions and also ravaged parts of the Bago, Mon and Kayin regions. A water wall of four meters high is said to have rolled some 25 miles inland across the Irrawaddy River Valley, flattening everything in its path. Although the military government reported the final death toll as 84,537, with 53,836 missing, independent estimates are that 140,000 were killed and tens of thousands more have never been found. The cyclone devastated the already spavined social infrastructure, and wiped out paddy fields, which at the time were being readied for the country’s primary rice crop. Even one of latest reports of Human Rights Watch, New York reveals that the Burmese government continues to deny basic freedoms and place undue restrictions on aid agencies despite significant gains in rehabilitating areas devastated by the cyclone Nargis. Mentionable is that the then Burmese group of generals named State Peace and Development Council initially did not allow international aids to its own people initially and thus they received condemnation and brickbats from the international community for their callous and cruel attitude.
“For nearly five decades, Burma’s military rulers had systematically undermined the interests of their own citizens. It wasn’t until days into the tragedy, goaded by international criticism, that the SPDC chief senior general Than Shwe found the time to visit the destroyed areas,” said in the report.
The then military chief Than Shwe and his company later softened following a personal visit of the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in the middle of May 2008. Slowly communications between the local government and the international agencies began to improve. Visas and travel permits were made a little easier and faster for the foreign aid workers.
The officials of Human Rights Watch however claim that the local aid workers still feel the brunt of continued repression by the military authorities. The report quoted many woman survivors of Cyclone Nargis to narrate the tale of awfulness. One May Khin, a middle aged woman from Laputta township described her pain, “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.” The International Organization for Migration claimed that nearly 400,000 people in Burma were still living without a proper home after a devastating cyclone. It also disclosed that the government while failed to provide adequate food, water and shelter to the survivors, shamefully continues violating the rights of the victims as well as the local relief workers.
Quoting the officials and aid workers, The Myanmar Times, a semi-government weekly newspaper published from Rangoon, reported that even after ‘three years after Cyclone Nargis thousands remain in need of shelter assistance’.
“This is an area where there are still huge needs,” said Arne Jan Flolo, first secretary of the Norwegian embassy in Bangkok. Even the UN Human Settlements Program estimated that some 375,000 people still need housing, 36 months after the worst natural disaster that stroke Burma.
If Nargis was of higher intensity, the Cyclone Giri struck the Arakan coast with comparatively lower magnitude. The category 4 cyclone hit the western coast of Burma on October 22, 2011 affecting the whole province. Over 100 people were killed and nearly one million Burmese were affected by the cyclone. According to the UN, over 70,000 people were left homeless by the disaster.
Quoting the Arakan League for Democracy, the Narinjara news, a pro-democracy portal, reported that villages like Kyuntharyar, Pyintharhtwatwa, Taungpaw, Angu, Ywathikay, Taungnyo, Kangyemaw, Dagon, Kanthar were severely affected where the people are still running out of safe drinking water.
“There is a shortage of drinking water. In the contaminated wells and ponds, saltwater sinks and the freshwater stays atop. So people collect and use the water sitting at the top portion of the well. But it is not that safe to drink. Some people still use water contaminated with saltwater. Some use the water from the well that is full with garbage,” the ALD source claimed.
Responding to this writer’s queries, a Rangoon based UN official argues that Nargis was a tragedy that every one has learnt bitter lessons from. So the large scale deaths could have avoided in the time of Giri with more awareness and early warning efforts. Putting his individual view, Aye Win, an official of United Nations Information Centre at Rangoon said, “The earthquake in Tachilek, tragic though it was, brought a greater closeness of cooperation between the humanitarian community and the authorities. The importance of disaster risk reduction was recently underscored by the visit of the Special Representative of the Secretary General on DRR, Margareta Wahlstrom, to Myanmar in early October. There is now greater awareness, and more importantly, greater political willingness to approach DRR holistically because of its long term impact.” Talking to this writer from New Delhi, Thin Thin Win, an exile Burmese lady claimed that the regime had done very little for the rehabilitation for the cyclone victims and they turned out to be inhuman for the women and children. Form the ground reality, it is understood that it would take few more years to completely rehabilitate the affected people in the cyclone affected areas of Burma, she asserted.
The hapless situation has compelled the poor Burmese, mostly young girl and women to fall in trap of traffickers, the fact admitted by the UN official. The US Campaign for Burma stated in a report that the underdeveloped country emerges as a source place for women, and children who subjected to sex trafficking in other countries. Burmese children are forced to labor as hawkers and beggars in Thailand. Many Burmese men, women, and children who migrate for work in Thailand, Malaysia, China, Bangladesh, India, and South Korea are subjected to conditions of forced labor or sex trafficking in these countries. The Rangoon UN official agrees that trafficking in Burma is an important issue to deal with. It will continue to be as long as the grass is continued to be perceived as greener on the other side. The driving force therefore is poverty. The issue of poverty is now publicly and openly acknowledged, a first step on a journey of perhaps a thousand miles, to quote Confucius, Aye Win concluded. The US Campaign for Burma also added in the report, “Military and civilian officials subject men, women, and children to forced labor, and men and boys as young as 11 years old are forcibly recruited to serve in the Burma army as well as the armed wings of ethnic minority groups through intimidation, coercion, threats, and violence. Some observers estimate that thousands of children are forced to serve in Burma’s national army as desertions of men in the army continue.”