Nargis ‘Crimes’ Alleged

Health groups call for a probe into abuses by Burma’s junta during 2008 cyclone relief efforts.
2009-02-27
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Residents queue to get drinking water in Rangoon following Cyclone Nargis, May 5, 2008.
Residents queue to get drinking water in Rangoon following Cyclone Nargis, May 5, 2008.
AFP

BANGKOKBurma's ruling junta deliberately blocked aid to victims of last year's deadly cyclone, the first major study of the catastrophic storm and its aftermath has found.

The junta's disregard for those who survived Cyclone Nargis could amount to crimes against humanity under international law, according to the report, After the Storm: Voices from the Delta, by the Center for Public Health and Human Rights at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and the Thailand-based aid organization Emergency Assistance Team (EAT).

The two groups have called for an investigation into Burma’s State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) for crimes against humanity.

Chris Beyrer, director of the Center for Public Health and Human Rights, said the report’s findings show a wide array of abuses by the SPDC, which he said violate international human relief norms and legal frameworks for disaster relief.

“The critical issue is … the use of forced labor in the initial phases, but also in the reconstruction phase. We did identify a number of reports by community members where children were included in forced labor demands, particularly if there were no adults in the household able to provide forced labor,” Beyrer said.

“This is all, for those who have followed Burma over the years, business as usual for the junta. But of course what is striking is that this is forced labor that is happening in the context of an internationally funded and supported relief effort,” he said.

The report charges that abuses committed by the SPDC may constitute crimes against humanity by hindering the process of delivering relief to victims, which would violate Article 7(1)(k) of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.

“The people of the Delta told us how the Burmese military regime hindered cyclone relief efforts, confiscated aid supplies and land, and used forced labor, including forced child labor, in its reconstruction efforts,” he said.

The SPDC obstructed relief to victims, arrested aid workers, and held back vital information about the situation of those affected by the disaster, the report said.

Call for assistance

Cyclone Nargis was estimated to have resulted in the deaths of nearly 140,000 people and severely affected 2.4 million Burmese.

But interviews with 90 private relief workers and survivors between June and November last year tell of ongoing shortfalls in providing basic food aid, water, and shelter, as well as the misappropriation, theft, and sale of relief supplies by Burmese authorities.

They also described human rights abuses against cyclone victims, including forced relocation.

Dr. Cynthia Maung, chair of EAT, called on the United Nations to take action against the Burmese government to better direct relief efforts to assist the victims of last year’s cyclone.

“Forced labor is making it even harder for the victims to deal with their situation from a physical and emotional standpoint. This is a violation of human rights. Based on this report’s assessment, the United Nations should provide these people with humanitarian assistance,” Maung said.

“They must also provide them with protection from these types of human rights violations. If the government doesn’t have the ability to protect their own people from these types of violations, the United Nations should take action against the responsible parties,” she said.

“It is inhumane that Burmese people have been jailed for offering charitable assistance and comfort to their suffering countrymen.”

Maung also called for more help from community-based organizations to fully assess the situation of the victims.

“We also need people from community–based organizations to work together. Having these people participate will be very helpful in improving the human rights situation. ASEAN needs to encourage these organizations to participate in this type of assessment,” she said.

Government hurdles

Mahn Mahn, an aid worker with EAT, said he has been traveling to the hardest hit areas of Burma to get a better idea of what is needed to assist those still in need.

“Bogalay, Labutta, Haingyi Kyun are the three places that have been worst affected in Irrawaddy division. I went there to speak with the people and they also contacted our organization. I also contacted people from Rangoon division,” Mahn Mahn said.

“People have come to this site in Thailand to work [in relief efforts], but some of them had their families left behind. All of them are victims. From Thailand, we have tried to help them contact their relatives who have been left behind. That’s how we were able to establish community-based contacts and were able to assess the situation.”

“The government put up a lot of hurdles, and it was hard to make the assessment. We faced a lot of difficulty in trying to make the assessment, but I feel that we have been able to establish a good picture of what is going on because of the community-based assistance,” he said.

Shortened recovery

Burma’s military junta meanwhile announced it had shortened the time frame for a Nargis recovery plan to the middle of 2010 as it prepares for general elections that year.

A United Nations-ASEAN coordinating group said earlier this month that a recovery plan would take three years and cost U.S. $700 million.

The military has promised elections in 2010 as part of a seven-step "roadmap to democracy," but Western governments have criticized the move as a bid by the regime to stay in power.

Original reporting by Suu Mon Aye for RFA’s Burmese service. Translated by Nancy Shwe. Burmese service director: Nancy Shwe. Written in English by Joshua Lipes. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.

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