The Stealth Rescue

Newsweek International, May 26, 2008 | Go to article overview

The Stealth Rescue


Byline: A Reporter In Burma

As Burma's generals dither, victims of Cyclone Nargis are getting secret help from private citizens.

They line the roads south of Burma's main city, Rangoon. Aid groups call them "separated children" because many don't know if their parents are dead or alive. They await food, water and other essentials delivered by private groups operating without legal authority in this brutal dictatorship. It's all surprisingly open; drivers stop, pop their trunks, and hand out noodles and water as soldiers look on. The kids then return to the churches, temples and schools that have become refugee camps across the Irrawaddy Delta.

The storm that battered Burma on May 2 left as many as 128,000 people dead and orphaned thousands of children. Two weeks on, scenes from the disaster zone reveal a halfhearted government relief effort. The generals have barred all but a few international aid workers, rejected help from foreign militaries and called on outsiders to send money and materiel, not people. The strategy: keep the disaster response internal--despite the warning of Amanda Pitt, of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, that this could trigger "a second wave of deaths." To the paranoid men who run Burma, such a calamity is a price worth paying to keep foreigners at bay. "They see the outside world as a bigger threat," says a Burmese intellectual who does not wish to be named.

Yet even this strategy carries a risk. Because the Army's and government's efforts have fallen so far short of what's needed, various community networks, nongovernmental organizations and religious groups are scrambling to fill the void. They're networking on the fly, moving food, medicine and other essentials into the flood zone to survivors, most of whom still haven't received any official assistance. The NGOs "have established channels to work around the government and deliver aid directly to the villages," says Jasmin Lorch of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin.

These hardworking civilians are not only bailing out Burma's neediest, they are also undermining the junta's efforts to monopolize all forms of social organization. Lorch, who did fieldwork in Burma between 2004 and 2007, found a civil society emerging in the shadows. Community-based schools, orphanages run by Buddhist monks, homegrown Christian charities and several dozen registered NGOs were already "active in areas in which the state fails, like health, education and basic welfare. …

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