The last year and a half has been an interesting time in Myanmar (the country formerly known as Burma). First, in September 2007 there were mass protests led by Buddhist monks. Then, in May of last year, cyclone Nargis devastated the Ayeyarwaddy Delta, the country’s most populous area and its agricultural heartland.
At the time the cyclone hit, restrictions on aid to Myanmar had meant that there were few foreign aid agencies present in the country, and those that did manage to work in the there faced extreme limits on where they could work and what they could do. Nargis changed everything. Following the cyclone, the government and donors agreed to loosen restrictions on foreign aid in order to help the country’s people to cope with their worst national disaster in recorded history. I was part of the subsequent wave of foreign aid workers that descended upon Yangon and the Delta. Never before had aid workers – or any foreigners since the British colonizers for that matter – had such access to the country.
[A few photos from my trip to the Delta in September. It's not hard to see how vulnerable people are to flooding.]
Now we’re wondering what’s going to happen following the cyclone that killed over 100,000 people. The aid effort is generally considered a success and there is little doubt that recovery has been much faster due to the international effort (although let’s not forget the inspiring efforts of regular Burmese citizens who packed their cars with rice and medical equipment to help those affected in the first days). But what happens now? Humanitarian access has been limited to the cyclone-affected areas of the Delta. What about those who are basically left to their own devices throughout the rest of the country? One of my tasks during my time in Myanmar was to try to gain longer-term access to vulnerable communities in other parts of the country in order to provide much-needed health care services. It’s still not clear if this will happen.
Optimists are hoping that the influx of money and foreigners will create a momentum that will begin to force the doors open to create greater access to populations in need. But optimists may be in the minority.