Six months after devastating cyclone Nargis struck Burma, more than a million people are still living in misery. There is an acute lack of clean water and growing fears of food shortages, while thousands remain living in makeshift shelters. And on top of that, there are increasing reports of human rights abuses.
"The Burmese military's obsession with control is making a speedy recovery in the delta area almost impossible," according to Win Min, an independent Burmese academic based at Payap University in Chiang Mai.
International human rights groups have reported an increase in forced labor, forced relocations and extensive land confiscation by the country's military authorities.
"Forced evictions have been the [State Peace and Development Council] SPDC's key contribution to the relief, reconstruction and rehabilitation effort throughout the last six months," Benjamin Zawacki, Amnesty International's Burma researcher, told Mizzima.
"Amnesty raised these concerns in the immediate aftermath of the cyclone, and since then the SPDC's reconstruction plans have involved significant numbers of forced evictions and the relocation of many villagers," he added.
And the most absurd anomaly is the military junta's crackdown on those individual Burmese – actors, business people, doctors and writers – who were so moved by the plight of the people they made independent sorties into the delta to distribute food, medicines and other relief supplies.
Nearly a hundred community workers who tried to help with the disaster relief effort are now languishing in jail, including the renowned comedian and outspoken critic of the regime, Zargana. They are all facing long prison sentences for their compassion.
This also includes six people whose only crime was cleaning bodies found in the delta in preparation for funerals. They have been in detention now for more than three months.
The Chairman of the Cyclone Relief Committee of the National League for Democracy (NLD) – Aung San Suu Kyi's party – was also recently arrested on the pretext that he was involved in a bomb plot. Ohn Kyaing – an elected NLD MP and former political prisoner -- was actively involved delivering aid to cyclone survivors in the Irrawaddy delta.
International aid agencies admit that these "humanitarian heroes," as they dub them, were in fact crucial in the first few weeks. "These 'well-wishers' made a real difference in the first few days, even if their efforts were unsystematic and erratic," Bridget Gardner, the head of the International Federation of Red Crosses and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) in Rangoon, told Mizzima. Most of these voluntary efforts have ceased because of the government's crackdown on them.
According to aid workers, many children have returned to school, farmers are anxiously waiting to see how their harvests fare and more and more houses are being built every week. "All the severely affected townships have been reached," Bishow Parajuli, head of the UN's Humanitarian Mission in Burma, told Mizzima. "However, there are still areas where more assistance is needed," he added.
The situation varies from place to place throughout regions of the delta left devastated by Cyclone Nargis six months ago, according to Ashley Clements, head of the international non-government organization World Vision in Burma. "We're at a turning point now – and attention has to be paid to the longer-term, especially providing safe havens for children and secure livelihoods for the people who were left with nothing by the cyclone," he said.
In the past few weeks, one in three Burmese villagers interviewed by World Vision researchers in some of the worst cyclone-affected areas, said they had been forced to reduce the number of meals they ate in a day in the past month because of lack of food.
Up to 30 per cent of children aged between 5 and 11 are not enrolled in school; while more than half of children aged 12 to 17 are not attending school, according to their report.
The most critical issue at present is the approaching rice harvest. While the UN's Forestry and Agriculture Organisation confidently predicts a good, if not bumper, harvest, farmers are far less sanguine.
"We will have to wait for the next planting season," moaned an elderly villager in a cyclone-affected area. "We don't expect much from this one," he added.
Burmese community groups working in the area believe that the whole Irrawaddy area -- the rice bowl of Burma and once the rice bowl of Asia -- will produce less than 60 percent of its usual output. And the yield will be significantly affected by hastily prepared fields, many still not properly drained of saltwater.
For many villagers, shelter and clean water remain a persistent worry. "An acute shortage of drinking water is the biggest concern," a Burmese activist emailed the Bangkok Post after recently visiting his home in the delta. Less than forty percent of the ponds, used by villagers to collect rainwater for drinking, have been fixed and the saltwater drained, according to a Burmese community group working in the area. In three key cyclone-affected areas, less than two-thirds of people interviewed by a local aid organization reported they had access to safe, clean drinking water.
Maybe as many as a million people are still living in makeshift or temporary shelters, according to Burmese aid workers. International aid workers, including UN staff, operating in Burma were unable to estimate how many victims are still in need of permanent accommodation.
"Step by step, people are rebuilding their homes, supported by the authorities, the UN and various other actors on the ground," said UN Resident Coordinator Bishow Parajuli. "In the Laputta and Bogale areas alone, the UN still needs support to build shelters for up to 15,000 vulnerable people," he added.
But some scars may never heal. The psychological trauma suffered by adults and children has left an indelible mark on those who survived the cyclone. "Farmers are reporting that their buffalos were traumatized and are still suffering six months later," said Ashley Clements. "So you can only imagine the impact the ordeal is having in the children in particular," he said. According to the World Vision survey, more than 70 per cent of children they interviewed are afraid of wind and rain following last May's disaster.
"The relief stage is nearly over and long-term reconstruction about to start," said Bridget Gardner. "There have been successes, weaknesses and lessons learnt for the future," she added.
But while the international aid workers are happy to support the Burmese government's view that things are moving in the right direction and all that is needed is more financial support for the reconstruction effort, the reality is far less rosy. Already the international community has overpaid because of the Burmese government's insistence on maintaining its artificially fixed exchange rate.
"I estimate the UN lost at least $5 million due to the initial enforcement of the Foreign Exchange Certificates – pocketed by the junta through the government-owned Myanma Foreign Trade Bank," said Sean Turnell, an expert on Burma's economy and financial system at Macquarie University in Australia.
What is worse is that the UN's solution – paying local contractors in foreign currency – will lead to far more misappropriation, overcharging and sheer corruption, noted Mr. Turnell. The military government and its cronies will continue to skim off millions of dollars instead of it going to benefit the poor victims of the cyclone. It will also help shore up the government's budget and its foreign reserves.
International analysts believe that the aid effort is only going to worsen the long-term situation for the people of Burma. Indebtedness, already a serious problem before the cyclone hit, is soaring. Most rural and many urban households were bearing huge debt burdens before Cyclone Nargis.
According to UN surveys, nearly one in every two households was indebted prior to the cyclone: 32 percent in urban areas and 55 percent in the countryside. This has worsened dramatically since the cyclone as much of the aid, especially to farmers -- seeds, fertilizers, ploughs and draft animals -- has been channeled through government agencies in the form of loans rather than grants.
In three of the worst-affected areas in the Irrawaddy delta, nearly 40 percent of local households had sold off some of their assets, and more that 40 percent had borrowed food or money for food within the past month.
Increasing indebtedness will be followed by more land confiscation, according to analysts familiar with the military regime's way of doing things. In Laputta, the government offered farmers of more than 100 acres loans on tractors for a deposit of 200,000 kyat ($200) – the balance of the loan to be repaid later. A tractor costs around 1.7 million kyat. Most farmers could not manage the deposit, much less hope to earn enough money to pay back the loan. They were then forced to give up their land to the state.
The confiscation of land is being repeated time and again throughout cyclone-affected areas. "As few villagers can prove clear title to their land in the delta, many returnees have already been forced to give up their plots to make way for agribusinesses and other interests," Amnesty's Benjamin Zawacki told Mizzima.
The government has also told people that they will forfeit their land if they do not make it productive, but then did not provide the necessary tools or equipment for them to do so. This cruel catch-22 scenario has resulted in forced evictions and extensive confiscation of land under the guise of 'the common good'.
This is going to lead to increased poverty, especially in the rural areas, as farmers will find it impossible to repay their debts.
So, six months on, millions of villagers face a harrowing future with little prospect of things getting better any time soon. While the UN and international aid agencies talk about the increase in humanitarian space, the reality is that the military government's obsession with control will inevitably doom the reconstruction efforts and the Burmese people will find themselves even worse off than ever.
"Human rights concerns have been largely ignored by international aid agencies as they respond to the disaster," according to Benjamin Zawacki.
"While this may have been understandable during the immediate relief phase, it is totally unacceptable now. The UN and others' failure to acknowledge and address these concerns will only make Myanmar's recovery less sustainable in the long run," he warned.
Larry Jagan is a freelance journalist based in Bangkok and a specialist on Burma. He was the former news and current affairs editor for Asia and the Pacific for BBC World Service.