Development work in Myanmar next to impossible, aid agencies say

By 
  • December 30, 2007
{mosimage}Six months after Cyclone Nargis killed approximately 100,000 people in Myanmar, Catholic aid and religious organizations are still struggling with how to help people in a corrupt police state.

“Working in a police state? Well, it certainly means certain restrictions are in place,” wrote Jocelyne Dubois, Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace program officer for Asia in an e-mail from Myanmar.

Dubois would not reveal to The Catholic Register names or locations of various church partners who have been working with the Caritas Internationalis network delivering food, medical attention and repairing damaged homes since the massive hurricane hit May 3. The groups need to maintain a low profile and try not to be associated too closely with foreigners or foreign organizations, she said.

“The military are not happy about foreign organizations working inside the country without co-operating with them,” said Tin Maung Htoo, executive director of the Canadian Friends of Burma. “Because they cannot get the money into their pockets.”

(The country is still generally known as Burma, even though the military dictatorship unilaterally changed the English name of the country to Myanmar in 1989.)

Extreme nationalism and corruption are involved in how the military rulers of Myanmar treat aid and development organizations, said Tin.

Development and Peace collected $2.4 million for Nargis relief work over the last six months. Working through Caritas, the funds reached 252,000 people with food aid, household basics from cooking utensils to mosquito nets, latrine kits, trauma counselling and child care.

After six months of meeting the immediate needs of people left homeless, Caritas is now moving on to a second stage. Over the next 12 months aid will expand to help farmers get back on their feet with agricultural loans, replacement livestock, rebuilding six schools, equipping 15 child care centres, repairs to bridges and piers and primary health care.

Inter Pares is a Canadian development agency which trains and sponsors 80 health teams on the Myanmar-Thai border, then secretly sends them across the border into mountain villages. The program reaches 200,000 people a year.

“I don’t think it’s possible to do development work in Burma at all,” said Inter Pares program manager Peter Gillespie.

Seeking permission from or signing a memorandum of understanding with a corrupt military regime is just not on, said Gillespie.

Development and Peace is under no illusion it is doing development work in Myanmar, said Dubois. Development “requires years and years of commitment to affect social change through the empowerment of people and communities — work that is impossible to do in Burma,” she wrote.

Instead, Development and Peace and the other 34 Caritas agencies that responded to Nargis are characterizing their next 12 months in the delta area as “rehabilitation.” While they are trying to bring communities back to where they were before the killer storm, the Catholic agencies have refused to register on a permanent basis with the military government. Instead they work with authorities on a case-by-case basis.

Other groups, such as World Vision, have registered and agreed to geographic and sectoral limitations.

“All the money collected in the Catholic community in Canada would be very, very useful for people in Burma. It won’t be a waste,” said Tin, but cautioned that relief efforts will only be useful “as long as the money is not channelled through the military junta.”

True development work is happening in refugee camps in Thailand, just beyond the reach of Myanmar’s generals, said Jesuit Refugee Service international director Fr. Peter Balleis.

“All that is invested in people — be it teacher training, be it skills training, women’s programs and so on — all will benefit the development once people go back,” the German Jesuit told The Register while visiting Toronto. “If we invest in the refugees, it will one day benefit the level of the country.”

The JRS runs schools and other programs at two refugee camps near the Thai-Myanmar border. Many families have been in the refugee camps for a decade or more, and are now more hopeful of resettling in the United States than of ever returning home, said Balleis.

However, it is the better educated refugees who can speak English who are actually qualifying for resettlement. Most of the camp residents will have to one day return to Myanmar, he said.

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