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Page last updated at 00:19 GMT, Monday, 4 May 2009 01:19 UK

Did the cyclone change Burma's junta?

Orphans gather at a monastery during a private ceremony to mark anniversary of Cyclone Nargis, Thursday, April 23, 2009
More than 2.4m people in the Irrawaddy Delta were affected by the cyclone

By Kate McGeown
BBC News

When Cyclone Nargis tore through Burma's delta region this time last year, it left 140,000 people dead and two million others without food, shelter or a way to earn a living.

But perhaps the most shocking aspect of the disaster was the military government's indifference to the suffering of its own people.

The ruling generals said Burma did not need "chocolate bars donated by foreign countries", and refused to allow aid into the region for nearly three weeks.

The international community was appalled, and eventually - after intense diplomatic lobbying - Burmese leaders were persuaded to accept foreign assistance.

A full-scale aid operation got under way, and the world heaved a collective sigh of relief.

Military generals attend the 64th anniversary of Armed Forces Day
Burma's military generals are wary of any outside influence

A year later this aid operation is still in full swing, and while lots of people remain dependant on outside help, most have now been given some form of assistance.

The government has not spent much of its own money on the relief effort, but at least it has mainly left the aid agencies to their own devices, enabling them to distribute supplies throughout the region.

"We've not faced any significant restrictions in the delta for the past 11 months," says Andrew Kirkwood, Save the Children's director in Burma.

"Our main obstacles haven't come from the government, they've been about logistics rather than politics; the only way we can reach people is by boat."

Criticised

But Burma's leaders are still dogged by claims that they are hindering the aid effort.

Perhaps the most serious accusations come from an independent inquiry into the cyclone response by researchers at Johns Hopkins University in the US and a team of Burmese volunteers.

They accuse the generals of deliberately blocking aid, selling on relief materials and using survivors as forced labour on reconstruction projects - and they recommend that the regime should be referred to the International Criminal Court.

map

Other Burma watchers are less critical, saying there has been little evidence of sustained corruption in the delta region, certainly after the first few months of the relief operation.

"At the beginning, some soldiers were taking aid back to their families, but that doesn't really happen now," says Mung Pi, who monitors events in Burma for his Mizzima news website, run by Burmese exiles in India.

Restrictive regime

Even with the most optimistic assessment, though, it is clear that the government has not made any major policy changes as a result of the cyclone and subsequent aid effort.

The military is still as secretive as ever, and remains focused on planning elections in 2010, despite the fact that the new constitution under which they will be held has been widely condemned as undemocratic.

Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi is still in detention, as are thousands of other political prisoners - including 21 whom Amnesty International says were jailed for helping cyclone victims.

And the head of the national weather centre, who decided not to broadcast the warning that Cyclone Nargis was about to hit Burma, is still in his job.

Travel restrictions have been lifted for aid workers in the delta region, but access to the rest of the country is still highly restricted - and there are known to be pressing humanitarian needs in several areas.

May 2008 photo of an aerial view of the devastation caused by Cyclone Nargis
Huge areas of land were flooded - and reaching victims has been difficult

In fact even access to the delta region remains uncertain - in February the regime said it would only extend the agreement allowing foreign agencies into the area to the middle of 2010.

But while there has not been any huge change in policy, those working in Burma have noticed some subtle differences.

"I think the cyclone has broken down some of the suspicion," says Richard Horsey, who was the spokesman for the UN body that orchestrated the aid effort, UNOCHA, at the time of the disaster.

"The government has understood the difference between humanitarian aid and politics," he says.

And according to Andrew Kirkwood, this change in attitude is already starting to bear fruit.

When Cyclone Bijli was heading towards the Bay of Bengal last month, and looked like it would hit Burma (in the end, it hit Bangladesh instead), government officials phoned Save the Children to agree a joint action plan.

"That would never have happened a year ago," Mr Kirkwood says.

Funding gap

Aid agencies say that despite the many difficulties of operating in Burma, they are still able to work with the government and achieve tangible results.

A woman feeds her baby as she rests in her makeshift tent Thursday, April 30, 2009, in Twantay
Hundreds of thousands have yet to get a proper roof over their heads

In fact many aid workers are frustrated by the common perception that money donated to Burma goes straight into the pockets of the military.

"This is a difficult place to work - no one's denying that. But it's not so difficult that you can't work independently and accountably," says Mr Kirkwood.

Because of this negative perception, there are concerns that donors' funds will dry up before the relief effort has been completed.

Richard Horsey estimates that the money given to victims of the Burmese cyclone is just a tenth of that given to Aceh after the 2004 tsunami, even though the size of the two disasters is comparable.

"It's sad because the needs are enormous," Mr Horsey says.

"We all agree that the government should spend more on the health of its own people, but that's no reason for the international community to use this as an excuse not to help either," adds Mr Kirkwood.

Ultimately the 2.4 million people affected by the cyclone care little about who comes to their aid - they just do not want to be abandoned between a recalcitrant government and wary donors.

A year on from the disaster, many thousands are still living under plastic sheeting, and dependent on food handouts.

Aid will be needed in Burma's delta - and elsewhere in this poverty-stricken country - for many years yet.



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