By MARWAAN MACAN-MARKAR
BANGKOK — Eighteen months after the powerful Cyclone Nargis tore through military-ruled Burma, one question that dogged early relief efforts has lost relevance: does the country have an active civil society to help victims?
The amorphous network of Burmese civilians, ranging from Buddhist monks in villages to middle-class women in cities like Rangoon, are winning praise as the unsung heroes who stepped in to aid and rebuild communities crushed by that May 2008 natural disaster.
The efforts by civil society groups in Burma, also known as Myanmar, became significant in the wake of the bureaucratic hurdles the secretive and oppressive junta erected to stop foreign aid workers flying in to help. Many international relief agencies with foreign staff complained that they were hit with restrictions on their movement in the devastated Irrawaddy Delta besides the tighter visa controls.
The inroads made by local civil society groups were highlighted this week by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, a 10-member regional bloc, during a pivotal meeting of international donors to raise US$ 103 million for recovery efforts through mid-2010. Asean, together with the United Nations and the Burmese government, played a lead role in a unique partnership to mobilize funds and help implement reconstruction efforts.
The 42-year-old Asean includes Brunei, Burma, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. “Asean’s partnership with the civil society in the implementation of these projects does not only enhance people’s well-being and livelihoods building more resilient communities, but also empowers the communities,” said Surin Pitsuwan, Asean secretary-general, in his prepared comments to the donor meeting held here on Wednesday. “Through a participatory approach, the communities have become more engaged in identifying their own needs (and) planning recovery.”
Such an approach has strengthened accountability and transparency, winning “trust and confidence among communities, local authorities and other humanitarian agencies,” added Surin in describing local initiatives following the disaster that killed more than 140,000 people and affected close to 2.4 million others.
The top UN official in Burma echoes the Asean sentiment about the position local civil society groups have carved out for themselves in the months since Nargis. “During the past 18 months I have seen an extensive enlargement of civil society,” revealed Bishow Parajuli, the UN humanitarian coordinator in Burma. “There are new civil society groups emerging.”
“Civil society plays an important role in every aspect of life,” added Parajuli during a press conference that followed the donor meeting, where industrialized nations committed to pump in US$ 88 million to help fund recovery programs through 2010 in the devastated delta. “There is an extensive effort to build civil society.”
Such praise stands in contrast with an unflattering view of Burmese civil society expressed by some international aid workers following the cyclone. One study that describes local responses to Nargis quotes an international aid worker saying, in September last year, “There is no civil society in Myanmar.”
But the reality was the opposite, adds this study published in the Humanitarian Practice Network’s online magazine. “In the wake of Cyclone Nargis, the remarkable civil society response has clearly and undeniably proved that it is alive, and doing great things against all odds,” said the December 2008 study. “More than 500 local (civil society groups) were supported in the Nargis response, albeit in an ad hoc and usually insufficient way.”
“Given the constraints to direct implementation by INGO (international non-governmental organizations), Nargis was the perfect opportunity for agencies to change their way of working, even if on a small scale, by supporting local initiatives,” added the report. “A number of small programs run by donors and INGOs provided grants, largely under US$ 5,000, to hundreds of self-help groups, spontaneously organized in response to the cyclone.”
The social fabric in Burma is behind this trend. “The country has a strong cohesive society, and people look after one another,” said Paul Sender, head of the British humanitarian agency Merlin’s office in Burma. “People who hadn’t suffered from the terrible events of Nargis came out to help.”
“The people proved their capacity through such efforts,” he told IPS. “At the height of our post-Nargis work, we had 12 expatriate staff and 350 national staff.
Over the last one and a half years, there has been a lot of transfer of skills to the local staff.”
But in Burma, where politics has invaded most corners of life, even the work of local civil society groups helping Nargis victims required caution, “because the government feels threatened by high-profile efforts of individuals or civil society groups,” explained Benjamin Zawacki, the Burma researcher for the global rights lobby Amnesty International. “The government feels that it should be helping and getting all the credit for its efforts.”
“The critical role that civil society groups played providing critically needed assistance after Nargis has been done by many by maintaining a low profile,” he said in an IPS interview. “They were the only consistent viable relief efforts to save lives soon after the cyclone—even at great risks to themselves.”
Yet not all Burmese helping the Nargis victims have been fortunate. In late October the junta arrested 10 political activists and journalists “for accepting relief donations from abroad,” Amnesty revealed this week. “Their whereabouts is unknown and it is not clear whether any charges have been brought against them.”
They join the list of other Burmese civilians and political activists who have been imprisoned since June 2008 for forming ad hoc groups to provide relief to Nargis victims. Among the most famous is Zarganar, a popular comedian, who was slapped with a 59-year prison sentence for his humanitarian work.