The cyclone that ravaged Myanmar’s Irrawaddy Delta five months ago has led to an unexpectedly robust influx of foreign money and relief workers, showering aid on a small part of Myanmar’s population, but leaving other, equally desperate parts of the country to fend for themselves.
After initial resistance by Myanmar’s junta just after the cyclone in May, dollars have cascaded into the delta on a scale that this country has perhaps never seen.
Britain, the EU, the US and Australia – all of which have long been considered the sworn enemies of the junta – have led donors in a fundraising effort that has so far provided US$240 million, or about US$100 for every person who survived Cyclone Nargis, an amount that the United Nations hopes to double in the coming months. The donors are leading projects to rebuild roads, schools, houses and water storage tanks destroyed or damaged during the storm.
Aid workers say they hope that this intensive effort in the delta, where only a small fraction of the country’s population lives, has opened up the possibility of expanded humanitarian operations at some point. But they acknowledge that for now the generous assistance in the delta has created a stark imbalance in the country.
“There’s a serious amount of money flowing into this country, and it’s all for Nargis victims,” said Frank Smithuis, head of the aid group Doctors Without Borders in Myanmar. “That is great, but it is strange that nobody seems interested in the needs of the rest of the country.”
Outside the delta, the list of those in need of food and medical attention in Myanmar is long and distressing.
In Sittwe, a city overlooking the Bay of Bengal, a half-dozen men have as their only employment an umbrella-repair business, fixing battered Made-in-China models that would be tossed into the trash in neighboring countries.
A household survey carried out in June for UN agencies found a “worsening and alarming economic situation” in villages near the border with Bangladesh. With bad weather last year leading to crop failures, families cut back from three to two meals a day. Only 60 percent of boys and less than half of girls had normal body mass — the rest were severely malnourished. And only 12 percent of households had soap.
In northern Myanmar, erstwhile opium farmers who gave up the heroin business in recent years in exchange for promises that they would be given food aid have now returned to planting opium because they are hungry, aid officials say.
Across the country, out of a quarter of a million people infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, 80,000 are in urgent need of retroviral drugs and only 15,000 will receive them, Smithuis said.
“The others will die,” he said.
In Chin state, near the border with India, villagers are suffering what has the ring of a biblical plague. Thousands of rats, attracted to a rare blooming of bamboo flowers, have eaten through rice fields and other crops. Farmers in some villages are now living on wild tubers in the jungle.
“The rats ate everything,” said Pyi Kyaw, a 38-year-old villager who rowed a boat loaded with bamboo and other timber for several days downstream to exchange the wood for large bags of rice. It will take nine days to row back home against the currents, he said.
For years, Western countries were reluctant to provide aid to Myanmar for fear that it would strengthen the grip of the junta and its repressive policies. But the cyclone, which struck on May 2 and May 3 and left an estimated 130,000 people dead or missing, was a turning point, because Western governments believed that the plight of the victims overrode concerns about ways that the junta might benefit. Today, 26 international aid organizations are operating in one district of the Irrawaddy Delta alone.
In past years, Myanmar received tiny levels of aid compared with its neighbors. In 2005, the latest year for which comparable figures are available, Myanmar received US$3 per person in aid compared with US$9 per capita in Bangladesh, US$38 in Cambodia, US$49 in Laos and US$22 in Vietnam.
The quandary for aid organizations is that assistance pledged for the delta must be spent in the delta, aid workers say. The World Food Program, a UN agency that delivers rice, beans, cooking oil and iodized salt, is fully financed through January for victims of the cyclone. But the organization will have to cut back programs in northern areas of the country because of an immediate shortfall of US$11.2 million, partly caused by the increase in global food prices.
“We haven’t been able to convince donors to give us money for projects in the northern areas,” said Chris Kaye, the head of the Myanmar operations of the World Food Program.
The cyclone has also drained resources away from areas outside the delta. Trucks, aid personnel and equipment were channeled to the cyclone-hit regions from northern areas of the country. And with an important rice-growing area in the delta damaged by the storm, the government forbade the World Food Program from buying cheaper, locally produced rice, fearing food shortages. The United Nations is now forced to buy more expensive foreign rice, further straining budgets.
In perhaps the most stark example of the imbalance between the delta and the rest of the country, impoverished villagers here along the border with Bangladesh have been forced by the government to donate money for the victims of Cyclone Nargis — a philanthropic gesture, couched as patriotic duty, that they can hardly afford.
Like the more than 720,000 other Muslims who live in Rakhine state, a rain-soaked western corner of Myanmar, Kobi Ramau is stateless. His parents and grandparents were born here in British colonial times, but the military government does not recognize him as a citizen.
For Ramau, a farmer and father of four, life is an extreme example of the deprivation, hunger and general poverty that many people in this country face. Myanmar’s military government bans him from traveling outside his district without a permit. Soldiers expropriated Ramau’s land a decade ago and took his 80 buffaloes. He is now paid the equivalent of US$25 a month by the military to till the land he once owned.
“They took everything,” he said
He seems initially startled when asked what types of things he needs, if the aid flowing to the delta were to come to this part of the country.
“We need so many things,” he said, pausing to respond. “We have no money.”
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