Testimony of Joel R. Charny, Vice President for Policy
May 20, 2008
Subcommittee on Asia, the Pacific, and the Global Environment
Committee on Foreign Affairs, US House of Representatives
I would first like to thank Representative Eni Faleomavaega, the
Chairperson of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asia, the
Pacific, and the Global Environment, for the opportunity to submit
written testimony for the May 20 hearing on Burma in the Aftermath of
the Cyclone. The focus of my testimony will be on the best approach to
improving the plight of the two million people affected by this
Cyclone Nargis was the perfect storm. It struck at the worst
possible place at the worst possible time. The Burmese people,
especially in the Irrawady Delta region, will be dealing with the
consequences of the cyclone for many years.
Cyclone Nargis struck at the worst possible place in two senses. First, it struck the country full force at its most vulnerable spot, the low lying delta region. There was no natural barrier to impede the storm as it swept up from the coast through the country’s major city, Rangoon. Second, the region is the rice bowl of Burma, and disruptions in rice production there will have negative ramifications for food availability throughout the country, especially in the context of regional and global price increases and shortages.
The storm struck at the beginning of the rainy season, when preparations for the main rice crop were underway. Not only did the storm kill more than 100,000 people, mainly in the delta, but it swept away draft animals, destroyed dikes, and flooded fields that need to be planted by the end of June.
The timing of the cyclone also could not have been worse politically. It struck Burma exactly one week before the military government’s national referendum on the new constitution, which the Burmese political opposition and ordinary citizens have dismissed as the culmination of an illegitimate process calculated to entrench the military in power. The government, suspicious of outside interference at all times, was especially concerned about externally fomented unrest in the days prior to the referendum. The senior generals, who in any event would hardly have been inclined to accept a major foreign presence overseeing the emergency response, had one more justification for placing severe limits on the international aid effort, even in the face of a disaster on the scale of Cyclone Nargis.
The cyclone will exacerbate existing vulnerabilities of the Burmese people. Under-5 child mortality is 104 per thousand, the highest rate outside Africa except for Afghanistan. HIV infection rates are the highest in Southeast Asia and malaria, a treatable and preventable disease, is the leading cause of mortality and morbidity. A rice bowl for Southeast Asia at independence in 1948, Burma is the only country in the world where Beri Beri, a vitamin deficiency, is a major cause of infant mortality; 30% of children under five are malnourished. Reflecting the difficulty that Burmese families face in feeding themselves, the average family spends 75% of its income securing adequate food supplies, compared to 57% in Cambodia and 52% in Bangladesh.
More than two weeks after the cyclone, the relief effort remains feeble. The Burmese government is primarily responsible for the frailty of the response. While it has backed off from its initial position that it could handle the emergency with its own resources, it has refused to accept international offers of aid on a scale commensurate with the need. It has allowed aid to dribble in --- a few flights here and there, more visas to international personnel --- but it has not made it possible for a tsunami-size effort to go forward. And the crime is that the logistical assets to undertake a major effort in the delta with helicopters and boats have been readily available in the region. But because they flew a U.S. flag, they have not been utilized. Hundreds of thousands of Burmese in the delta remain isolated and in distress.
The role of the Burmese government is inevitably problematic. The country’s military leaders are out of touch with the desperate conditions of the people, as evidenced by their shock at the poverty-driven protests of the Buddhist monks last September. The authoritarian system in Burma discourages local initiative, which is critical to any emergency response. Early reports from Rangoon indicated that soldiers and police were inactive, presumably awaiting instructions on how to provide assistance from officials that had been caught by surprise by the magnitude of the disaster. In recent days, the military has been more visible, but more for show piece distributions for propaganda purposes rather than for sustained aid that would really make a difference to the survivors.
The Burmese government does not have the institutional capacity to provide relief on a massive scale. The combination of institutional weakness and suspicion of outsiders is crippling the emergency response.
In the face of Burmese intransigence, the United States, the United Kingdom, China, India, and the member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) are coalescing around a British proposal that would have ASEAN be the face of the relief effort, using Asian disaster response experts and military assets of ASEAN countries, backed with funds, materials, and logistical support provided by the major powers. This is the only viable approach at the moment, relying on Burma’s own expressed willingness to cooperate with ASEAN, but its success is far from assured due to ASEAN’s lack of internal unity on matters related to Burma policy and its complete lack of experience in organizing a collective emergency response of any kind, much less on the scale required in this instance.
The core of the relief response to date has depended on self-help efforts of the Burmese people, through spontaneous efforts by concerned citizens, as well as ones by local non-governmental organizations. For the international effort, experienced relief organizations that had a presence and extensive local staff prior to the cyclone have been in the best position to respond. Ten UN agencies and 48 international NGOs were already operating inside the country with government permission. In many cases, through patient work over many years, these organizations have devised ways of operating independently of the government, mainly through their local staff working closely with Burmese community-based organizations. These staff are hired free of government interference, and they deliver assistance directly at the village level.
Given the difficult working environment in Burma, and the regime’s mistrust of international actors, donor governments should rely on the capacity of organizations already inside the country as the quickest route to providing services to disaster-affected communities. Donors should ensure that NGO appeals are fully funded, and that priority is given to agencies with a proven ability to work in Burma.
I am pleased to recognize that the U.S government has adopted this approach in its initial response to the emergency. Refugees International especially appreciates the U.S. flexibility in proceeding with this funding despite the fact that its own personnel, in the form of a full disaster response team, has not been able to enter the country due to government visa restrictions.
In the medium-term, adequate response in Burma will require the presence of new international agencies. The UN and ASEAN should lead discussions with the government on streamlining procedures to register new operational agencies and managing access. In the meantime, agencies that are interested in becoming operational should explore partnerships with agencies already present, and the possibility of integrating their staff with these partners until they can set up their own official presence inside Burma.
A major medium-term challenge will be the need for recovery and development assistance. Cyclone Nargis has left several million Burmese homeless. Many villages are flattened and delta communities are reporting 90-95% damage. The threats to the 2008 rainy season rice crop and the future productivity of the delta are severe. Rangoon, the country’s largest city and economic hub, has also been directly affected. Large investments will be required to rebuild its infrastructure. This will require a long-term commitment from donors for the stabilization of the disaster-affected population and for the reconstruction of cities and villages throughout the delta, including Rangoon.
Currently, most donor nations have strict restrictions on the provision of development assistance to Burma, as this type of aid is usually provided for cooperative projects with the government. These restrictions are useful insofar as they ensure money is not misused by the Burmese regime. The demands for reconstruction aid will be substantial, however, and the United Nations, in cooperation with international NGOs, will need to define how best to carry out this work while ensuring the greatest degree of independence possible.
At the same time, members of Congress should begin to develop policy options that allow for development-style assistance to Burma within politically acceptable limits. It should begin to do this in consultation with NGOs working in the country to ensure that political limitations and operational needs complement each other, as is the case with the current European Commission Common Position on Burma.
It will also be important to extend programs beyond the disaster-affected areas to the country as a whole. The loss of food supplies and farmland in the delta region, the nation’s rice bowl, could have negative consequences for highly vulnerable people in other parts of the country. Similarly, the further sapping of Rangoon’s economic strength in an anemic economy could have reverberations throughout the country that will further jeopardize livelihoods in areas that were not directly affected by Cyclone Nargis.
The political impact of the cyclone is impossible to predict. The differing post-tsunami experiences of Indonesia and Sri Lanka point to the difficulty of judging the cyclone’s ramifications in Burma. In Aceh, the severity of the tsunami broke the political impasse between the armed resistance and the Indonesian government, freeing both parties from long-held rigid positions as they gradually coalesced in the interests of the welfare of the people. A dramatically increased international presence helped create the environment for these developments. In Sri Lanka, in contrast, the tsunami response quickly became politicized, amid mutual accusations of unjust aid allocations and donor bias, which contributed to the return to open warfare between the Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan government.
The cyclone offers the possibility of revitalizing the relationship of the Burmese government and the international community as the world’s generosity manifests itself in the coming days and weeks. The hope is that the scale of the disaster is so immense that even the reclusive military leaders, at ASEAN’s urging, will eventually have no choice but to accept a large-scale international aid presence. For mid-level civilian officials, the new engagement with the outside world will be a welcome opportunity. Even if the generals who run Burma make it difficult for the aid agencies to respond to needs in keeping with humanitarian principles and practice, new relationships will be forged at the local level that will bring a measure of hope to the long-suffering Burmese people.
The American people traditionally show strong support for assistance to those in dire need, regardless of their nationality, religion or form of government. After Hurricane Mitch, the tsunami in Southeast Asia in 2004 and the earthquake in Pakistan in 2005, Congress passed supplemental spending bills that authorized multi-year commitments of funds for the emergency response, and we feel a similar commitment is needed for Burma.
The financial requirements for the emergency response and the near-term reconstruction effort will amount to more than two hundred million dollars. At this point the United States is largely doing the right thing --- stressing the humanitarian needs and the imperative to respond; making generous offers of assistance; supporting the diplomatic efforts of the UN Secretary-General, ASEAN, and regional powers with the Burmese government. In closing, I urge Congress to give the Administration the financial resources that it needs --- $40 million --- through the supplemental appropriations legislation currently under consideration to ensure that the United States is able to play an appropriately strong role in the response to the Cyclone Nargis catastrophe.