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Burma

Wave of Burmese solidarity forces regime to retreat on cyclone aid

Marc Johnson, 21 May 2008

Media reports have neglected the most important source of aid to victims
of cyclone Nargis - spontaneous donations from their fellow citizens.

With the Burmese regime continuing to deny the true extent of the
catastrophe, and army factions vying to appropriate as much of the aid as
possible, food, clothing and money gifts from private Burmese citizens
probably represents over 80% of the aid actually received by victims of
the cyclone, which killed over 30,000 people when it hit southern Burma on
May 2nd, with a similar number thought to have since died of injury,
sickness, hunger and exhaustion.

A large amount of foreign aid is blocked at Burma’s borders, because
western countries insist that their own development charities supervise
its distribution, rather than Burmese troops, as the regime proposes. But,
though you wouldn’t know it if you depend on the western media for your
news, aid from Europe and North America is only ever a small part of the
total resources deployed in response to any natural or man-made disaster.
In Burma, as elsewhere, western aid is often an expensive and clumsy
system, which ignores local traditions of philanthropic and social
activism, and can even distort them, with its sudden inflow of easy money
and impatient, arrogant ‘experts’.

Fortunately, while (or perhaps because) Burma has an unspeakably bad
government, its people have maintained a very strong tradition of social
and cultural solidarity. The regime initially tried to confiscate
spontaneous local aid for cyclone victims, placing roadblocks at the gates
of Rangoon to intercept the hundreds of cars carrying food, clothing and
money down into the delta region. But in the face of massive public anger
– and a wave of solidarity that was in any case able to find inventive
ways past whatever physical and administrative blocks the regime created,
the junta backed down at the end of last week.

The result was felt immediately. On Sunday 11 May, the roads from Rangoon
down towards the first delta ports were virtual solid columns of cars.
With most offices and workshops closed on that day, families, groups of
friends and companies pooled their resources to provide aid, well aware
that their government is doing almost nothing to help.

This solidarity, of course, has its limits. The most important limit is
geographical and logistic: individual and small groups don’t own and can’t
afford to hire the four-wheel drive vehicles or boats that are needed to
get help where it is most needed - in the isolated delta areas more than
one hour from Rangoon. Nor could this small-scale aid deal with the
health-related emergency in the delta, or the need to rebuild river
transport and rice paddy irrigation systems that have developed over
centuries, but which were washed away overnight.

Like all kinds of aid, there is also a terrible time constraint - a second
wave of deaths, from disease, hunger and exhaustion, is expected in coming
weeks, unless a much greater amount of aid can be delivered to a much
greater number of people. Foreign aid agencies have a crucial role to
play, and can provide much-needed expertise in civil defense and disaster
relief. Even foreign military may be needed, as only they have access to
the helicopters, light planes and ship-born water purification systems
that are needed to support people in the more remote areas of the delta.

Interestingly, international media and donors have largely ignored local
dynamics of philanthropy and solidarity. And yet, here is a story about
huge amounts of aid actually being delivered, and about the regime backing
down and relaxing restrictions following public pressure.

There are at least two reasons for the apparent western disinterest in the
wave of Burmese solidarity. Firstly, this story contradicts the
black-and-white picture of Burma that dominates in western media. And
secondly, it contradicts the image of western donors and charities as the
main, the only, the essential element in response to this and other
disasters. Acknowledging that local people here - as in almost every other
catastrophe - provide most of the aid, most of the volunteers, and most of
the pressure on local regimes for positive change, would make it harder
for European foreign ministers to exploit the Burma story to present
themselves as champions of human rights and humanitarianism themselves in
their national media, while they continue to support the opposite of
humanitarianism in Iraq and other countries. A more realistic presentation
of the central role of Burmese civil society in aid would also be
inconvenient for the fundraising campaigns of the biggest western aid
charities, who systematically present themselves as the essential element
in any crisis resolution.

Fortunately, some smaller foreign solidarity outfits have chosen to
distribute what cyclone disaster funds they can raise through groups of
local volunteers, some loosely or less loosely linked to opposition and
student-based groups, or to those parts of the Buddhist religious
community that have been key in recent pro-democracy agitation. This kind
of small scale linkage is likely to grow rapidly, now that the situation
for local activists in Rangoon is improving.