Six months after cyclone, Burmese junta tightens grip

Despite its uncaring response to the disaster that killed 150,000, the military is stronger than ever
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The Independent Online

Six months after a huge cyclone tore through Burma's Irrawaddy Delta, killing up to 150,000 people, thousands of people remain dependent on food aid. The disaster set the country's military junta one of its biggest challenges in more than four decades of oppressive rule, but, if anything, its grip has been strengthened.

The latest risk to the population of the Delta, the most densely populated area of the country, is a lack of drinking water. Immediately after the cyclone, most people relied on monsoon rain for safe water. But now the dry season is coming, and despite an enormous effort to clean up drinking water ponds, many are still unfit for consumption.

"The lack of clean water will directly impact the health of children," said Andrew Kirkwood, Save the Children's country director in Burma. "Scarce family resources will be further strained if they must purchase water, as will relationships among communities if they must compete for this resource."

The damage in May from Cyclone Nargis was huge. Entire villages were destroyed and thousands of people were swept out to sea. Crops and livestock were devastated in what was once Burma's breadbasket, and hundreds of thousands were left homeless – and reliant on a government that demonstrated little inclination or ability to help.

Initially suspicious of foreign offers of aid, the junta blocked entry to aid workers, supplies and helicopters. Eventually, the regime allowed aid workers access to certain parts of the Delta. That decision, it appears, saved thousands of lives.

"The situation is better than I had expected. A huge amount of support did get through," said Roger Yates of ActionAid, who visited the area last week. "The problem now is how to restore livelihoods and to build preparedness to deal with future storms."

Six months ago, the UN launched an appeal for $500m (£310m) to deal with the emergency. Little more than half of this has been committed, which means that long-term rehabilitation is suffering. "I went to villages and asked if anyone had had a good night's sleep since the storm, and they all said no," Mr Yates said. "They told me that every time there is a wind the children get scared. Everyone is on edge."

Burma, the poorest country in south-east Asia, has been ruled since 1962 by a succession of military regimes that have jailed opposition politicians such as Aung San Suu Kyi. Worldwide criticism of the junta after the cyclone led activists to believe its grip might be loosened, since the disaster came only months after massive public demonstrations in September 2007, when up to 100,000 Buddhist monks and others took to the streets in protest. But those protests were violently put down, and, six months after Nargis, the regime appears to have cemented its position.

"The cyclone has been a blessing for the regime," said Mark Farmaner, of the Burma Campaign UK. "The UN and governments seem to have forgotten the brutal suppression of the peaceful uprising last year. Forgotten also are the 2,100 political prisoners... The small amount of humanitarian space they have opened up in the Delta region is being hailed as a major breakthrough, despite aid restrictions still existing in the rest of the country."

Next month will see a return trip to Burma by the UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, who visited the Delta in May. Some hope this might persuade the regime to release some political prisoners. In May, just days after Nargis struck, the regime held a referendum for a new constitution that will purportedly open the way for multi-party elections in 2010. Most believe the referendum was a sham.