ForeignPolicy

In Burma, A Crime for Civil Society to Provide Relief?

Individuals and civil society groups can't provide emergency relief to the hundreds of thousands of cyclone victims.
BANGKOK, Jun 9 (IPS) - The detention of a prominent comedian in Burma points to an ominous turn of events in the military-ruled country. It has reportedly become a 'crime' for individuals and civil society groups to provide emergency relief to the hundreds of thousands of cyclone victims.

The bald, bespectacled Maung Thura -- or Zargarnar, as he is widely know -- led one such group of unsung heroes, who began raising funds and supplying aid to those who survived the powerful cyclone that lashed the Irrawaddy Delta and the Rangoon Division on May 3. His group was comprised of writers, artists, actors and comedians, among others.

"We started our [volunteer] emergency relief work on May 7, and we are still working," the 47-year-old said in an interview published in The Irrawaddy, a current affairs magazine run by Burmese journalists exiled in Thailand. "There are 420 volunteers in our group," he said.

"At the beginning, we took risks [to provide aid], and we had to move forward on our own. Sometimes we had confrontations with the authorities," Zargarnar said, explaining the challenges placed by the notoriously oppressive Burmese regime in the post-disaster relief effort. "For example, they asked us why we were going on our own without consulting them and wanted us to negotiate with them. They said they couldn't guarantee our lives."

But last week, Zargarnar's role as a good samaritan came to an end when the police took him from his home in Rangoon, the former capital, for a still-to- be-verified period of detention. The police also seized his computer files that contained images of the cyclone victims and the relief efforts.

Zargarnar has been detained and jailed before, beginning in 1988, when he spoke in support of university students agitating for change to a military dictatorship that had been in place since a 1962 coup. In August that year, the junta crushed a peaceful, pro-democracy uprising, killing over 3,000 activists. Zargarnar was jailed for one year soon after.

The last time he was arrested by the police was in Sep. 2007. The 'crime' he was detained for then was delivering food and water to some of the thousands of Buddhist monks who had marched through the streets of Rangoon in protests against rising food prices and the junta's oppression.

"What Zargarnar's arrest has shown is that the SPDC [State Peace and Development Council] is not happy with the network of civil society groups that responded promptly to the cyclone," says David Scott Mathieson, Burma consultant for Human Rights Watch. "[The junta] wants to contain the civil society response and take all the credit for the relief effort."

Zargarnar has been one of the many prominent artists, writers and entertainers who have led the relief effort, consequently revealing "the government's poor response," he added in an interview. "The effort Zargarnar led shows Burmese civil society trying to chart an independent course away from the regime, which only represents itself, and selected business elite."

The tireless work by ordinary Burmese citizens to help the cyclone survivors was witnessed by members of international humanitarian agencies who have flown into the South-east Asian nation since the disaster. "I saw lots of groups helping people to rebuild their homes. There were also businessmen who had come to the delta to help, but feared that they could be arrested for providing relief," said Dean Hirsch, president of World Vision International, a Christian charity that has worked for years in Burma.

Hirsch, who just returned to Bangkok after a brief visit to the cyclone- devastated areas, also praised the efforts of another group that has been in the forefront offering comfort and relief to the survivors -- the monks in the predominantly Buddhist country. "There was a great response by the monks. I was impressed with the connections they had in the communities to get relief goods to the delta," he told IPS. "They were able to access areas where the government and INGOs (international non-governmental organizations) could not reach."

In fact, one famous Burmese monk who has come to symbolise this aid drive is Sitagu Sayadaw Nya Nissara, head of a highly respected monastery in the Sagaing Division in central Burma, the seat of Burmese Buddhism. He led relief teams to the Bogale Township -- one of the worst hit areas -- soon after the cyclone, which has killed between 130,000 to possibly 300,000 people, and affected between 2.5 million to 5.5 million people.

"He has been the most prominent monk to help the victims. The monks have played a very significant role, beginning with the opening up of the temples in the delta to offer refuge for the victims," says Win Min, a Burmese national security expert teaching in a university in northern Thailand. "The temples were the strongest buildings in the area, so they remained standing. Ordinary people who wanted to help came with their relief goods to the temples for distribution."

"This has certainly brought the monks and people closer," he added during an interview. "The monks have won the hearts of the people."

And there is no surprise why. The junta not only failed to use its state machinery to help the victims, but the scale of the country's worst natural disaster, affecting over 80,000 square km, was beyond its capacity. Moreover, the regime continued to place bureaucratic roadblocks in the way of international relief efforts, resulting in over one million people still having to get basic relief.

The bond between the monks and the people is one the regime fears. The regime's brutal crackdown of last September's peaceful pro-democracy protests -- led by thousands of robed monks -- reveals the discomfort. Since then, the junta has turned the heat on any moves to strengthen a beleaguered people's increasing dependence on the clergy for help and hope.

A report last week by Amnesty International pointed to the junta's strategy, since the cyclone, to break the growing dependency cyclone victims have on the clergy. Hundreds of cyclone victims who had found shelter in four monasteries in Bogale were evicted by the regime, revealed the global rights lobby.

"The SPDC doesn't want monks to have close connections with the people," says Win Min. "This bond will be seen as a threat to the military regime."