Tue, Jun 03, 2008 - Page 5 News List

Myanmar reopens schools despite criticism

SAFETY CONCERNS Aid groups said sending children to school was risky as there was not enough time to train new teachers and rebuild schools devastated by the cyclone


A child collects rain water running off a tent at a camp for people displaced from Cyclone Nargis near the Irrawaddy delta town of Labutta, some 320km from Myanmar's largest city of Yangon, on Saturday.


Myanmar's military government reopened schools yesterday in several areas still reeling from a catastrophic cyclone, a move international aid groups said was premature because classrooms have not yet been rebuilt.

One month after Cyclone Nargis struck on May 2, foreign aid workers also criticized the regime for still dragging its feet on allowing them speedy and full access to survivors of the disaster.

The junta promised UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon that foreign relief workers would be allowed into areas worst affected by the storm in the Irrawaddy delta after they were initially barred.

Faced by international censure for its inept handling of the catastrophe, Burmese Deputy Defense Minister Major General Aye Myint told an international security conference in Singapore that the junta broadcast warnings about the cyclone more than a week in advance and moved quickly to rescue and provide relief to the estimated 2.4 million survivors.

“Due to the prompt work” of the military government, food, water and medicine were provided to all victims, the minister said. “I believe the resettlement and rehabilitation process will be speedy.”

The comments came a day after the generals came under sharp criticism for kicking homeless cyclone survivors out of shelters and sending them back to their devastated villages.

Hundreds, if not thousands, of displaced people have recently been expelled from their temporary shelters in schools, monasteries and public buildings, Human Rights Watch said on Saturday.

“The forced evictions are part of government efforts to demonstrate that the emergency relief period is over and that the affected population is capable of rebuilding their lives without foreign assistance,” Human Rights Watch said.

Some international aid agencies said their staffers were still meeting survivors deep in the delta who have not received any help since the storm hit.

Myanmar leaders have also been slammed for not immediately visiting cyclone-affected areas. Junta leader Senior General Than Shwe visited some refugee camps two weeks after the storm.

An article in the New Light of Myanmar newspaper said Than Shwe had intended to visit the affected regions as soon as the storm occurred, but delayed his plans “so that the prime minister, head of the National Disaster Management Committee, could carry out the relief and rescue work more effectively.”

In its struggle to return to normalcy, the junta reopened many schools yesterday in areas hit by the cyclone, though some were scheduled to reopen next month.

UNICEF said more than 4,000 schools serving 1.1 million children were damaged or totally destroyed by the storm and more than 100 teachers were killed. As a result, the government planned to train volunteer teachers and hold some classes in camps and other temporary sites, the UN Children’s Fund said.

“What is normally a safe space can become an unsafe space,” said Gary Walker, a spokesman for the UK charity Plan. “Sending [children] to what can be unsafe buildings with ill-trained and ill-equipped teachers can actually set them back rather than leading them on a road to speedy recovery.”

UNICEF’s regional director Anupama Rao Singh said reopening schools in the delta yesterday “may be too ambitious,” since construction materials were still on the way and there was not enough time to rebuild schools and train new teachers.

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