Repressive government, poor infrastructure hamper relief efforts.
Cyclone Nargis cut a wide swath of destruction through the southern part of the country. The government estimates that at least 22,500 people were killed, with 41,000 still missing, but the United Nations estimates that the numbers may be much higher. Much of the destruction was caused by a 12-foot tidal wave that destroyed coastal homes and villages.
The UUA and UUSC together raised $2 million for victims of the 2004 Asian tsunami and more than $3.5 million for post-Hurricane Katrina relief in 2005.
The cyclone, which occurred May 2-3, devastated Burma’s populous southern shore, angling up and passing through Yangon, the nation’s largest city. The Irrawaddy Delta area on the southern shore has an estimated population of 3.5 million, with Yangon on the delta’s southeast edge having a population of approximately 5 million. The country’s entire population is approximately 53 million.
International relief organizations have been struggling to get their workers into the country to help the cyclone victims. Burma, which has been under military rule since 1962, is considered to have one of the most repressive regimes in the world, according to the pro-democracy organization Freedom House. While few international relief workers have been allowed to enter the country, some food and other supplies from the U.N. and neighboring countries have been permitted entrance.
The country’s fragile infrastructure has complicated aid distribution, especially to isolated areas. Even before the storm, some villages were accessible only by boat or helicopter, according to the New York Times.
The UUSC is an independent human rights organization that works through partnerships it forms with grassroots organizations. In times of disaster they focus on helping groups marginalized from traditional aid strategies. The UUSC has several already-established partnerships with organizations working in southeast Asia. “We are in dialogue with different groups about work in Myanmar,” said Martha Thompson, manager of the UUSC’s Rights in Humanitarian Crises Program, who just returned from the country on May 3. They met with several of the 40 international NGOs (non-governmental organizations) now based in the country when they were there. “Asian NGOs may well have more access to Myanmar than western organizations initially,” she said, “and we are in discussion with some of our partners in India and Indonesia who responded to the tsunami about response to the cyclone.”
“This is a sensitive situation,” Thompson added, referring to the growing tension between the government and the international aid community over relief. “Groups given the go-ahead to work in the country need to be very aware of this.”
For more information about contributing to the fund, visit the UUSC’s website.
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Jane Greer is a former senior editor of UU World magazine.