School Days in Myanmar, Minus Thousands of Schools

June 5, 2008

With the opening of school this week we are beginning to see more reports on the effects of Cyclone Nargis on the social infrastructure. According to UNICEF, 4,000 schools serving 1.1 million children were damaged in the storm. Most schools remain damaged, but a few in and around Yangon have been repaired thanks to quick efforts of relief groups. Schools nationwide in Myanmar officially opened June 2nd, while Schools in seven townships in the Irrawaddy Division and one township in Yangon division will reportedly try to open in one month. But with thousands of schools completely destroyed, students in many areas may go without any proper school buildings for some time.

The economic hardship will be felt by hardest by children, who will lose out on opportunities to study. Many families who have lost their livelihoods will be unable to afford to send their children to middle school and high school. Compulsory education in Myanmar only covers primary school, and according to UNESCO less than 50% of children go beyond the primary level.

We have had some direct reports from sources in the Irrawaddy delta that people there have their children’s education prominent in their minds. Imagine a child 13 or 14 midway through their high school years being unable to continue because of the sudden impoverishment of their entire extended family. There are tens of thousands of such children in Myanmar today.

Here are some other news reports that have come in on the opening of schools.

UNICEF to focus on damaged schools in unreached areas of Myanmar

Myanmar reopens schools 1 month after cyclone

Myanmar evicts cyclone victims from schools, so classes can resume

Here are some agencies we know that are directly helping to improve the lives of children. Perhaps you or someone you know can also give them a hand.

UNICEF

World Vision

Save the Children

A Daunting Task to Rebuild Lives in Myanmar

June 2, 2008

What would you do if you lost everything? Imagine a 20 foot wall of water rushing through your home while you slept and somehow you survive by clinging to a tree. What would you do? Who would you turn to? A neighbor? Family? Your local place of worship? Well, what if everyone in a 80 to 100 mile radius was in the same situation as you? Imagine if it were you?

“Her mother died in her arms in the boat,” said Davis, a Martinez native. “She’s in her 50s. She lost her two children, her mother, her grandchildren. She’s the only one left. And there’s a lot of people in these kinds of situations.”

Or…

“In my entire life, I have never seen a hospital. I don’t know where the government office is. I can’t buy anything in the market because I lost everything to the cyclone,” said Thi Dar. “So I came to the monk.”

With tears welling in her eyes, the 45-year-old woman pressed her hands together in respect before the first monk she saw at Sitagu’s clinic and told her story. The other eight members of her family were killed in the cyclone. She now felt suicidal but no longer had anyone to talk with.

That’s the reality on the ground in Myanmar (Burma) today. People are struggling to survive and at the same time looking at what they can do to rebuild their lives. But, when you start from having nothing, you need everything: clothes, shelter, farming implements, animals to pull a plow (and fertilize your land), seeds. When a police official or soldier might make $15 a month and someone with a Masters degree might make $50, the future can seem awfully daunting. What would you do?

For the surviving children, ideas for the future might be to work hard in studies and get a good job so they can take care of their families and build a better life in the future. Today (June 2nd) is the first day of the new school year in Myanmar. No one knows how many schools have been destroyed in the storm. But even when they are rebuilt, many families will not have enough money to send their children to school. That’s the reality of the future for many children in Myanmar, unless enough people reach out and help.

Refugees Sheltering in Churches also being Evicted in Myanmar

June 1, 2008

Reports continue to come in about the forced eviction of refugees from temporary shelters at schools, temples, and other public places. Officials from the United Nations and other groups have appealed for a halt to these evictions, but so far there has been nothing to indicate a reversal in this policy. In the last few days we have seen reports that these evictions are affecting those huddled at Christian churches.

According to a report from Church World Service (CWS) there were at least 21 of their affiliated churches in Yangon providing shelter to Cyclone Nargis refugees. Catholic Relief Services (CRS) reports that many churches, including ones in Yangon and in Pathein (Bassein) in the Irrawaddy Delta are also serving as relief shelters. We know of various seminaries and church schools that are also providing shelter in Yangon. The Myanmar Baptist Convention (MBC), reportedly the largest denomination in Myanmar, has 306 villages in the delta served by their churches that were seriously affected. While many churches were destroyed in the storm, the MBC has been working with churches in the region to help cyclone refugees. The MBC has over 4,500 churches and 1.1 million members throughout the country.

Now it appears that church shelters like these are among those targeted by officials. Here is one such report:

Nearly 500 cyclone refugees from the Irrawaddy delta taking shelter in Christian missionary compounds in Rangoon’s Ahlone township have been ordered back to their villages, according to aid workers.

Most of the refugees are ethnic Karen Christians from villages around Labutta township area in the cyclone-devastated Irrawaddy delta.

They were brought to Rangoon by the Yangon Home Mission Karen Baptist Association and were kept in the group’s compound in Ahlone township.

An aid worker said the refugees were ordered by Rangoon divisional chief general Hla Htay Win yesterday to go back to their villages within 24 hours.

“The Rangoon divisional chief said the refugees were to go back to the Irrawaddy delta by tomorrow – he said there were refugee camps to give them shelter,” said the aid worker, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“But in reality, there is nowhere for them to stay.”

While refugees sheltering in churches in Rangoon may be forced to move back to their villages there are a number of other church efforts that seem to be continuing with success. One Christian group was able to successfully send in volunteer doctors and nurses from America to work in affected villages there. Anglican groups have also been successfully serving refugees in their parish areas in Laputta. The CWS is also providing important psychosocial counseling for those still traumatized by their experiences during and after the cyclone.

However, other challenges still remain. Many people within Myanmar, including many Christians, are willing to travel to the Irrawaddy Delta to help storm victims, but they are being turned back if they do not have National Registration Cards from Yangon Division. With refugees being sent back to the Irrawaddy Delta, churches and other relief groups will also face greater logistical and financial challenges as already scarce transportation and sky-high fuel prices place a greater demand on the limited relief finances. So, as the relief effort continues in the face of these new challenges, the people of Myanmar still remain in need of your thoughts, prayers, and donations.

Eviction Day: Cyclone Refugees Moving Again in Myanmar

May 30, 2008

There’s the old expression, the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing. The doings of bureaucracies can often be described in such a way, reflecting the seeming impairment of brain function or logical decision making. Observing from a distance it seems like that old phrase is an apt metaphor from which we can view the day’s news.

For whatever reason, it seems the decision has been made that the homeless from Cyclone Nargis should be moved out of their temporary shelter in schools, temples, and even government-organized camps. Reports of refugees being asked or forced to leave private residences and temples came out in the week after the cyclone hit. The refugees then were often sent off to camps set-up by the government. Now, evidently at some level, the order has been made to break up these camps and temporary areas of shelter and send the refugees on their way. Some reports mention the start of the school year on June 2nd as one motivation for some evictions. However, such a situation ultimately makes the relief effort that much more difficult, as these centers were at one time central areas where food, shelter and medical care could be distributed in a somewhat orderly manner to the homeless.

We present some excerpts of these reports of forced eviction:

KHAW MHU (Kaw Hmu), Yangon Division (See Maps page)

Myanmar’s junta is evicting dozens of destitute families from one of its own cyclone refugee centres, giving each one just four bamboo poles, a tarpaulin and an unlikely promise of a monthly ration of rice.

“What are we supposed to do?” said 39-year-old Than Soe, nervously stroking the heads of his three young children at the small government ‘tented village’ 20 miles south of Yangon, the former capital.

Read the rest of this entry »

More Stories of the Homeless and Hungry in Myanmar

May 29, 2008

From the start, the relief effort to help the survivors of Cyclone Nargis faced tremendous barriers and challenges to overcome. The area of destruction is wide and the numbers of those severely affected are immense. Combine these factors with the inaccessibility to areas, a badly damaged transportation network, and the destruction of so many boats upon which the area depends upon, and the problem of relief becomes even greater. Then on top of all this we can throw in the inability of local authorities to handle the challenges of all of these factors. Officials have further hindered the relief efforts, by creating barriers to access and assistance (likely out of fear and other base motives) and following traditional practices and impulses, when new solutions and openness would better serve everyone’s interests.

Waiting

Through all of this is the cruel reality that far too many people are going without access to food and proper shelter. Here are some excerpts of the reality on the ground a full three and a half weeks into the relief effort.

Read the rest of this entry »

Update 2 on the Karen in Myanmar

May 28, 2008

We reported nearly two weeks ago on stories we were hearing of aid being blocked from entering villages and areas of the Karen. In the last several days we have seen echoes of these stories on other websites, particularly Christian church-related websites, as many of the Karen are Christian.

No one seems to really know exactly how many Karen there are in the Irrawaddy Delta. We have seen some estimates of them making up 40%-60% of the population. We know, based on reports from natives of that area, that there are many villages and areas where the Karen predominate. For example, there may be one village or groups of villages being nearly 100% Karen, the next nearly 100% Burmese. For those new to Myanmar issues, the Karen speak different languages than the majority Burmese, which can add to the sense of separateness between the two peoples (Pwo Karen and Sgaw Karen are the primary dialects of Karen in this area, with some further dialectical differences based on region, such as Bassein Pwo vs Thailand Pwo).

Ethnic conflict between the Burmese and Karen is nothing new. There was open fighting at times during WWII after the British were initially pushed out by the Japanese in 1942. But, at least in the Irrawaddy Delta, there has not been extensive ethnic strife in the delta for many years (at least that we are aware of). So, it would be worrying if the reports of discrimination in aid accessibility prove to be true (though we should note that many of our Karen friends seem to take these reports as very believable).

Here are some excerpts of the reports we have seen:

One villager who spoke to Asia Times Online said that the Karen in the Irrawaddy Delta did not trust the military, which he said treated the ethnic group as second-class citizens. “Many Karen villagers are not going to the relief centers because they fear human-rights abuses by the military,” he said.

Other ethnic Karen delta residents say it’s still too early to tell if racism is guiding the junta’s aid distribution and that to date all ethnic groups are suffering equally. Karen political and military leaders, based on the Thai-Myanmar border, also cautioned against jumping to race-based conclusions.

“The lack of aid is general, they are all victims. The relief teams are not reaching them,” said David Taw, the KNU’s foreign affairs minister. Yet whether the discrimination is real or imagined, the perception that it may exist could add to the frustration and desperation left in the cyclone’s wake.

The Karen Human Rights Group reports more of the same:

Speaking to KHRG, one Karen resident from the delta said that it is because many of the villages are predominantly ethnic Karen and were formerly “populated totally by Karen” that “the regime is not interested in aid reaching the area.”

According to another report received by KHRG, “In the rural areas the SPDC are not allowing assistance to villagers… The authorities have set up check points along the roads on the way to Labutta, Pathein [Bassein], Myaung Mya and Bogale in order to block relief from reaching those in desperate need.” Labutta, a predominantly ethnic-Karen town, has reportedly been decimated by Cyclone Nargis; as has Bogale, which outside of the town centre is also predominantly Karen. Myaung Mya, like Bogale, is predominantly ethnic Karen outside the town centre and in the surrounding countryside. Bassein, while now largely populated by non-Karen residents, was previously a majority-Karen town and the surrounding villages remain heavily populated by Karen.

Myanmar Food Security Update: The growing malnutrition crisis

May 27, 2008

As the relief effort continues to build and assessments become more detailed, one issue that seems to dominate is the factor of hunger and malnutrition.

“I have no dish, no cup, no blanket, no pillow. I have received nothing from the government,” said Daw San Mar Oo, 31, a farmer in a hamlet near Dedaye. “I have nothing in my hands.”

Hundreds of thousands of people have lost everything they own, such as their homes and belongings but most importantly they have lost their stocks of food. In fact, entire communities and regions have lost their stocks of food. Relief agencies are trying to build up logistical centers to replace the now destroyed food distribution system so that it can support the 2.5 million people who have been severely affected by this storm. As the flow still is meeting only a fraction of those affected, assessments of the impact the lack of food is having are beginning to come in. Here are some findings from one assessment from a few days ago:

- 72% of people surveyed only eat two meals per day, in contrast to three meals per day before the cyclone.

- 86% of people surveyed eat damaged rice and eat half the quantity they used to eat per meal.

- One week after the Cyclone struck, people already said that they were starving.

But, what amount of food would need to be delivered to people out in the Irrawaddy Delta? As we have noted before, the assessments are still ongoing, but we will take a wild guess here. Read the rest of this entry »

What are the odds? 92.4 x 2 …

May 27, 2008

Focusing in on issues such as the relief effort, food security, and public health we typically miss a lot of other news, so this little item slipped by us Monday.

YANGON (Reuters) – Myanmar’s army-drafted constitution sailed through this month’s referendum, with 92.48 percent of the vote on a turnout of 98.1 percent despite the carnage wrought by Cyclone Nargis, state media said on Monday.

The remarkable thing is that the 92.4% yes vote was exactly the same as the percentage of yes votes for the voting that took place on May 10th in the areas not affected by Cyclone Nargis. As with all things of this nature, we don’t have any particular opinion, but we are heartened by the solidarity that everyone felt towards the new constitution. We are wondering, though, whether or not copywriters at The Onion were involved in this particular broadcast.

Myanmar Cyclone Relief Aid Update: Your donations are still needed

May 27, 2008

The UN has released the donation figures following the joint ASEAN-UN sponsored donor conference in Yangon. As of May 26th, a total of USD 132,698,157 has been committed and transferred to U.N. and other NGO agencies working on the cyclone relief efforts in Myanmar. An additional USD 100,223,288 has been pledged to the relief effort (although it has yet to be either committed or transferred to the U.N. or NGOs). It is likely that much of this latter pledged figure will be allocated in the coming weeks as international government agencies and NGOs are better able to make assessments of the affected areas. For a full accounting of the financial picture of the relief effort, see here, and figures for the May 26th update here. The Myanmar government’s assessment of need is nearly USD 11 billion.

The UN Flash Appeal from 20 UN agencies and international NGOs so far has received a commitment of USD 74.6 million, with an additional USD43.8 million pledged. The UN Flash Appeal for Myanmar currently is requesting $201 million, although this figure is likely to rise as further assessment is made of areas that so-far have yet to be reached by relief officials in the Irrawaddy Delta.

Since different NGOs provide different types of relief assistance, funding is divided into various sectors, such as: agriculture. coordination and support, economic recovery and infrastructure, education, food, health, protection/human rights, safety, shelter, and water and sanitation. Some sectors of the most urgent need, such as food and health, have received a greater share of donations so far.

The Health sector, for example has received just over USD 15 million in committed funding and pledges against an assessed need of USD 23.5 million. The Food Sector (covered by the World Food Programme) has received USD 14.8 million in funds with pledges of an additional USD 19.2 million, however as the assessed need is for USD 69.5 million the need has only been half met. Then there is Education, there is a USD 7.5 million need for providing financing for education programs. But so far programs, such as World Vision’s emergency education for refugee children and Save the Children’s early childhood development programs, have yet to receive any committed funds or pledges, according the UN‘s figures.

Below is a list of the top 10 donors to the Myanmar relief effort. The UN’s Central Emergency Response Fund has contributed the largest amount so far, with private donors, Australia, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Denmark rounding out the top 5. The top private donor so far has been the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. A few other private companies have provided assistance, but so far corporate donations to Myanmar, one of the world’s most economically underdeveloped countries, have reportedly trailed corporate donations to China’s earthquake relief by a considerable margin.

“For both China and Myanmar, there is lots of interest and concern, but there has certainly been more of a response for China,” said American Red Cross spokesman Michael Oko.

TOP 10 Donors to Myanmar (Burma) Cyclone Relief (US Dollars / Percent of Total)*

Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) 22,417,366 16.9 %

Private (individuals & organizations) 19,511,297 14.7 %

Australia 14,365,563 10.8 %

United Kingdom 12,168,382 9.2 %

United States 11,134,846 8.4 %

Denmark 4,724,301 3.6 %

Canada 4,442,259 3.3 %

Norway 4,201,559 3.2 %

Sweden 3,161,021 2.4 %

France 3,115,265 2.3 %

*Note: Does not include funds that have been pledged but not yet committed.

People in Myanmar Hoping for Goodwill on the Diplomatic Front

May 26, 2008

The U.N.-ASEAN co-hosted aid conference in Yangon Sunday saw 500 representatives from 52 countries meet to discuss the needs of the country and what countries are prepared to offer in terms of assistance. Most reports coming out of Yangon report more hope being offered than actual Euros, Yen, and Dollars. The progress made seems to be more in the 2 steps forward, one step back variety, as many governments appear to be in a “wait and see” mode.

New donations were reported from Sweden, China and a few other countries, but many governments are waiting to see what becomes of the promises of increased access for aid workers traveling to and from the Irrawaddy Delta. The promise of increased access extracted by U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on Friday has so far been kept, according to initial reports coming out of Yangon. However on Sunday it appeared as if increased visa issuance for aid workers may not be completely unhindered.

While commenting that the country would welcome aid without any strings attached, General Thein Sein, who holds the post of Prime Minister, made some remarks that seemed to put some conditions on visa entry. “For those groups who are interested in rehabilitation and reconstruction, my government is ready to accept them, in accordance with our priorities and the extent of work that needs to be done,” Thein Sein said. “We will consider allowing them if they wish to engage in rehabilitation and reconstruction work.”

New donations were reported from Sweden, China and a few other countries, but many governments are waiting to see what becomes of the promises of increased access for aid workers traveling to and from the Irrawaddy Delta before increasing on previously made commitments. The promise of increased access extracted by U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on Friday has so far been kept, according to initial reports coming out of Yangon. However, on Sunday it appeared as if increased visa issuance for aid workers may not be completely unhindered. Read the rest of this entry »

Yangon Division Health Care Update

May 25, 2008

U.N. agencies and two dozen or more international relief groups are part of the official “health cluster” operating in Myanmar that is providing care to Cyclone Nargis survivors and is treating the subsequent diseases and sicknesses brought on in the aftermath. Many other doctors and health practitioners are operating independently on an ad-hoc basis, according to published reports. According to the World Health Organization, about 50% of the health centers in the affected areas were damaged or destroyed by the cyclone.

Needs for medical and psychological care are dramatic due to the remoteness of many areas and the damages to the transportation infrastructure. Much of the Irrawaddy Delta area affected by the cyclone is endemic with Malaria, a mosquito-borne disease that claims a million lives annually. Dysentery, cholera, dengue, leptospirosis and snakebites are other health worries, along with injuries and scrapes suffered during the high winds and storm surge. Some reports make mention of people who were swept miles from their homes and yet were still able to survive.

In addition to the physical trauma and affliction from disease, the WHO anticipates 30-50% of the cyclone affected population could suffer psychological distress, based on the WHO’s experience with other disaster relief operations. WHO has provided financial and operational support to 350 rapid response teams and medical teams of the Ministry of Health, Myanmar. The government reportedly claims that 122 teams local medical teams are operating.

Following up on our compilation of reports on the Irrawaddy Division, in this report we focus on Yangon (Rangoon) Division. According to one report, Hlaing Tharyar, North and South Dagon, Shwepyithar, Dawpone, Dala, Seikkyi Kanaungdo, Thanlyin and Kyauktan areas were among the hardest hit by the cyclone. Read the rest of this entry »

U.N. Secretary General Secures Aid Worker Access to Irrawaddy

May 23, 2008

United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon announced in Myanmar on Friday that the Myanmar government has agreed to allow foreign aid workers of any nationality to travel to the Irrawaddy Delta, which was the most severely affected area hit by Cyclone Nargis. After discussions with leaders in the capital of Naypyidaw, 350 km north of Yangon, Mr. Ban announced the changes for aid worker access and the set-up of a logistical hub. Previously, only aid workers from Asian nations had been allowed beyond the roadside checkpoints set up outside of Yangon, although reports have come through that some high profile officials have been allowed in and other Western aid workers seem to have gotten to the area by water craft.

The U.N. reported that the main Yangon airport has been cleared for use as a logistical hub for the air cargo flights that are coming into the country. Also announced was that civilian ships and small boats were cleared for bringing aid into the country. This latter announcement could seemingly clear the way for French and U.S. naval ships, that have been waiting off-shore in international waters, to have their cargoes unloaded onto barges and other freight ships for transport to the delta area. Government media reported that these naval vessels and their fleet of helicopters will not be allowed direct access to the region. No word, however, on whether or not such unloading of cargo is planned or practical at the present time (given the current weather situation and availability of such private vessels).

Mr. Ban had arrived in Yangon on Thursday and his delegation was flown on two Mi-17 military helicopters over the heavily devastated Irrawaddy Delta. He toured the region for four hours with stops at a makeshift relief camp, where he met survivors of the village of Kyondah, and later at a distribution center stocked with bags of rice and cartons of sealed bottles of drinking water.

Mr. Ban will be meeting with Thai and U.N. officials in Bangkok until Sunday, when he returns to Yangon for a donor conference of international government and non-profit officials. While in Bangkok he will oversee the beginning of operations of the logistical hub at Bangkok’s Don Muang Airport, formerly Thailand’s main international gateway until the opening of Suvarnabhumi Airport two years ago. (Editor’s note: We will report in detail on the logistics situation in the next few days.)


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