One Year After Cyclone Nargis, Grassroots Organizations are Rebuilding in Burma (Myanmar)


One Year After Cyclone Nargis, Grassroots Organizations are Rebuilding in Burma (Myanmar)

May 1, 2009

On May 2, 2008, a category four cyclone devastated Burma's* Irrawaddy River Delta, killing 140,0001 people and leaving more than a million homeless. The disaster brought the world's attention to the human rights abuse inflicted by Burma's military junta, the SPDC. As the government barred international aid, leaving destitute populations to suffer in the aftermath of the disaster, grassroots organizations within Burma saved lives and set about the task of rebuilding.

Barriers to Aid | Aftermath | AJWS Funds Grassroots Efforts| Sustainable Partnership

The category four cyclone that ripped through Rangoon and the Irrawaddy River Delta region on May 2, 2008 was the world's deadliest natural disaster since the 2004 Tsunami. Cyclone Nargis put Burma's capital city, Rangoon, and vulnerable low-lying coastal regions under water, killing residents and destroying much of the country's already-poor infrastructure.

Barriers to Aid

In the weeks that followed, the junta that currently controls Burma, the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), refused entry to humanitarian organizations and harassed, arrested and in some cases imprisoned those trying to offer humanitarian assistance.2 Resulting starvation and disease contributed to a death toll that estimates say reached 140,000.

On May 23, three long weeks after the storm, Burma's government grudgingly opened its doors to international aid. Even then, it was a struggle to get supplies and assistance to the affected population. AJWS sources on the ground reported that shipments of life-sustaining resources such as food, fresh water and medical care were routinely confiscated directly from the airport tarmac and taken to be sold at army markets or distributed at army camps rather than distributed to the intended cyclone survivors.

The junta also sought to minimize reporting of storm-related damage in ethnic minority villages, which is significant given that the Karen people make up at least half of the population in the Irrawaddy River Delta region.

"It is appalling that the SPDC opted to deflect immediate international attention away from this humanitarian disaster, delay entry visas to aid workers, and instead attempt to maintain authoritarian control over its people," said an AJWS contact in the region in May 2008. "The suffering and devastation that have resulted are of alarming magnitude."

In the Aftermath of the Storm

One year after this immense humanitarian crisis, Burma's people are still picking up the pieces. Though their efforts to rebuild are constantly impeded by the government's ongoing repression, communities are resilient. Years of government neglect and harassment have forged hard-earned self reliance and ingenuity. Grassroots organizations that had been working with refugee and internally displaced populations on Burma's borders adapted quickly to the country's new humanitarian needs. Immediately after the storm they provided supplies and aid in partnership with community groups in the Delta region, and today, they continue to build local capacity and infrastructure for long-term recovery.

AJWS Funds Grassroots Relief

AJWS has funded community-based organizations working on the Thai-Burmese border since 2002. After Cyclone Nargis, these long-standing partnerships helped AJWS to circumvent the SPDC's obstruction of international agencies. Community-led relief efforts have been critical to ensuring the safety and health of the Burmese people during and in the aftermath of this disaster.

To date, AJWS has made seven grants totaling more than $300,000 (largely contributions from AJWS donors after the cyclone), to organizations like E.A.T. (Emergency Assistance Team Burma), a coordinated relief effort that includes the Mae Tao Clinic and several of AJWS's grassroots partners. Early on, these grants provided emergency provisions like water, rice and mosquito nets. A second round of grants is today supporting projects like education, livelihood recovery, psychosocial support and infrastructure building—the ongoing work of sustainably rebuilding what has been washed away.

Sustainable Partnership

AJWS is proud to be funding in Burma after most humanitarian organizations have left the region. Kate Kroeger, AJWS's director of grants, says: "These were our partners before the storm and they will remain our partners long after."

*The name Myanmar was given to the country by the SPDC in 1989. However, pro-democracy activists still use the former name, Burma, to vocalize their objection to military rule. In solidarity with these activists AJWS refers to the country as Burma.

1 After the Storm: Voices from the Delta. Report by E.A.T. and JHU CPHHR on human rights violations in the wake of Cyclone Nargis.

2 Ibid.