Bangkok // With the anniversary of a devastating cyclone only two months away, the Myanmar government has agreed to allow operations of a massive international relief and reconstruction effort, co-ordinated by the United Nations and the regional grouping of South East Asian countries, to continue for another year. Cyclone Nargis lay to ruin large parts of the country in May, especially the Irrawaddy Delta, to the west of the former capital, Yangon. More than 140,000 people were reported to have died and 2.5 million were left homeless.
The Tripartite Core Group brings together representatives of the UN, the Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean) and the Myanmar government to co-ordinate and monitor international efforts to rebuild the areas hit by the cyclone. The extension of the TCG's work was formally agreed at the recent regional summit of South-east Asian leaders in the Thai beach resort of Hua Hin. "The extension reflects Asean's confidence that the mechanism is working efficiently in facilitating the distribution and utilisation of assistance from the international community to support" Myanmar's relief and recovery efforts, the group's chairman, Kyaw Thu, was quoted as saying in a press release issued from Yangon. "It also shows the government of Myanmar's trust in the TCG partners to continue helping the cyclone-affected people."
Recently there had been considerable concern within Asean countries that Myanmar may no longer be interested in keeping the group going. It was set up in June, after an international donor meeting chaired by the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, helped funnel funds from international donors and established a way to monitor progress. "The TCG has proven to be an invaluable mechanism to help co-ordinate and facilitate the efforts on the ground, and the extension of this partnership will further facilitate and quicken the recovery phase," Bishow Parajuli, the UN's resident and humanitarian co-ordinator in Myanmar, said in an interview. "Nevertheless, it remains a continuous challenge to get sufficient funding for the country's large-scale recovery needs."
When the group announced its three-year recovery plan - the Post-Nargis Recovery and Preparedness Plan - last month and appealed for fresh funding, most major donors said their continued support for the reconstruction efforts in the Myanmar was contingent on extending the core group's mandate for at least one year. The detailed plan is expected to cost US$691 million (Dh2.5 billion). "The UN in Myanmar, as well as the humanitarian community, is positive that the donors will continue supporting the Nargis-affected communities," Mr Parajuli said.
But many donors remain cautious. "The EU has provided considerable support to the victims of cyclone Nargis in the Irrawaddy Delta, and the delivery and monitoring of this aid has been greatly facilitated by the TCG," David Lipman, ambassador of the European Commission to Thailand, Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia, said. "While our support is not directly dependent on the extension of the TCG, we are as a consequence more comfortable to continue our work to assist recovery."
Although the blueprint drawn up by the international group working in Myanmar provided a detailed plan for the future, the key concerns are obvious, the UN says. "Increasing people's access to clean drinking water, restoring livelihoods and building communal shelters before the next cyclone season beginning in May, are some of the key priorities," Mr Parajuli said. "There is also a continued need to rebuild physical infrastructure including schools, health facilities, and cyclone-resistant shelters, with a strong emphasis on disaster-risk reduction in all efforts."
Many NGOs are concerned that the international community's humanitarian efforts in Myanmar are being hijacked by the needs of reconstruction in the Delta. But the UN chief in Yangon dismissed these concerns and suggested that actually the joint post-cyclone efforts may provide a model for development assistance elsewhere in Myanmar. "There is an acute need for assistance and support in other areas of the country and I believe that the collaborative achievements in the Delta can serve as an example for the provision of relief and development support also in other parts of the country," Mr Parajuli said.
But the Johns Hopkins University School of Public Health in the United States and Burma Economic Watch at the Australian Macquarie University recently levelled major criticisms against the post-Nargis relief and reconstruction efforts. "The people of the Delta told us how the Burmese military regime hindered cyclone-relief efforts, confiscated aid supplies and land, and used forced labour, including forced child labour, in its reconstruction efforts," Chris Beyer, who co-ordinated the Johns Hopkins University study, said.
The Australian study showed that virtually all reconstruction is dominated by the military government in a "top down" role that excludes the private sector and is condoned by the tripartite group's three-year plan. "It is a throwback to the state-driven, planning mindset that in the 1950s and '60s condemned countless developing countries to stagnation and retreat," said Sean Turnell, a professor of economics, who heads Burma Economic Watch.
The core group's recommendations will perpetuate the impoverishing policies and programmes of the country, he said. The UN and others involved in the group dismissed these claims. There are procedures in place to track the funds and ensure full accountability and transparency, Mr Parajuli said. "The whole approach to enhancing co-ordination by the Ponrepp, has taken a bottom-up perspective, looking through the lens of maximising the impact of recovery assistance in the field to the beneficiaries, and working upwards while seeking better ways to strengthen field operations," he said.