Myanmar: As The Cyclone Death Toll Soars, Why Aren’t Relief Efforts Bigger?

Government suppression of information has probably played a role.

Whether the cause is awareness of environmental issues, the slow government response to Hurricane Katrina , the massive need for aid in the wake of the 2004 Indonesian tsunami or the grim situation in war-torn Darfur , over the past few years major disasters around the globe have elicited rapid, highly publicized responses.

Celebrities — tapping their star power to encourage people to donate food, clothing and an extra set of hands to help those in need — have often used their influence to raise awareness and spur action to save lives, resulting in tens of millions of dollars raised.

But more than a week after a powerful cyclone hit the Asian nation of Myanmar, there has been very little of that kind of response, despite the fact that some experts are now saying the cyclone may result in more than 100,000 deaths and the displacement of more than a million people. Why is there so little talk outside the world of disaster relief agencies about this massive loss of life?

There are several contributing factors, first and foremost among them that the country’s secretive ruling junta (the military group that has ruled the nation since 1962) has allowed very little information about the effects of Tropical Cyclone Nargis to leak out, which has hampered journalists from reporting on the disaster. Initial reports on the impact of Nargis put the death toll at a few hundred — but that number climbed to more than 10,000 within days of the storm, and estimates place it at more than 100,000 dead in light of the slow response and fears of additional deaths from malaria. At press time on Monday (May 12), the official death toll was nearly 32,000, with 30,000 still missing.

Additionally, the government initially barred relief agencies from entering the country to assist those most deeply affected in the southern Irrawaddy River Delta region and rejected offers from the United States to send aid. While blocking the help, the isolationist government — which at first said it could handle the situation itself — focused instead over the weekend on passing a referendum on a new constitution, despite pleas from the international community to delay the parliamentary procedure and focus on saving lives. The United Nations called the blocking of aid caravans into the country “unprecedented.”

Mike Kiernan, a spokesperson for the relief agency Save the Children — which already had 500 aid workers in Myanmar working on education and child protection, who were ready to respond to the disaster before it happened — said some stars have quietly come forward, such as Brad Pitt, George Clooney, Matt Damon and Don Cheadle, who donated $250,000 to relief through their Not On Our Watch charity.

“The negotiations with the government over aid flights have definitely slowed down the aid that can get in, but our first shipment of material arrived over the weekend with water-purification straws and tents,” he said, adding that his organization has already raised $2.7 million toward a goal of $10 million worldwide.

Another factor is the slow manner in which the story broke in the days following the cyclone’s impact. While Myanmar’s government initially played down reports of widespread death, news agencies had difficulty getting reliable information out of the country due to its tight control on media, as well as the difficulty in navigating around the most heavily impacted low-lying areas, where bridges and roads were washed out and massive piles of debris have hindered access.

“Over the first 24 hours, the reported death toll was in the hundreds, but after the first 28 hours, the world community of humanitarian organizations realized we had a much bigger disaster on our hands than we thought Saturday morning when the cyclone hit,” Kiernan said.

At least two-thirds of the 1.5 million people who need help aren’t believed to haven’t gotten any since the storm struck on May 3, and The Associated Press reported that once foreign aid did arrive, some of it was modified to make it look like it came from the military government.

On Monday, a U.S. military cargo plane with supplies was allowed to land and two more are on their way. Also on Monday, the junta said it was considering opening the border with Thailand to allow trucks with construction materials to enter the impacted areas, according to a Bloomberg News report. But one of the ways the government has further hampered relief efforts is by barring most of the foreign experts who have experience managing these types of crises, the AP reported.

“Some aid is getting into the country, but the door is not open as wide as it needs to be,” U.N. spokesman Richard Horsey told the Los Angeles Times. “The government does not have the capacity to respond to this on its own, which is why it is essential that they move urgently not just to allow goods to come in, but also the people and equipment needed to distribute it.” So far, the paper reported, the military government has only approved visas for a handful of foreign aid workers, even as foreign aid shipments have been getting easier, faster clearances.

For a list of the aid agencies accepting contributions to help those affected by the cyclone, go to: MTV Think, InterAction and Gitameit Music Center.

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