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Burma Struggles with Dwindling Aid Two Years After Cyclone

New disasters push Burma's humanitarian needs to the back of the foreign aid line

In Burma's Irrawaddy Delta, motorboats ply the dense network of rivers, delivering passengers to coastal villages of fragile thatch huts. Locals are still coping with the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis which killed more than 140,000 people two years ago this week. Many in the devastated region say foreign aid has been scarce for a long time.

"Our village was destroyed during the cyclone. Since then, we have never had another chance to eat a regular meal. Some have to survive on broken rice," a young local man, who asked not to be named, told VOA's Burmese service. He says people are desperate.

His story could be told by any of his neighbors in the township Kungwankon. They are hungry and out of work.

"Six months after Nargis hit, all relief stopped coming into the country," said the young man. "We do not know how to go along with this."

No one seems to have an answer.

After Cyclone Nargis wiped out the Delta's social infrastructure and the country's main rice crop, Burma's military government took the unprecedented step of working with its regional neighbors and the United Nations.

They appealed for more than half a billion dollars to restore people's lives. But after the initial push to help the isolated country, the three-year recovery plan has only raised $180 million - a quarter of the need.

In Rangoon, Grace Ommer, with the relief agency Oxfam Great Britain, says international aid priorities shift as new disasters happen.

"There's just so many disasters at the moment and perhaps much of the aid has been diverted to Haiti, for example And perhaps we are just not such a focus country at the moment."

Ommer adds donors may also be reluctant to send aid to a country ruled by a repressive military government. "I think they probably are conflicted due to elections and human rights abuses."

Burma's military leaders have few allies, and are under U.S. and European sanctions for their poor human rights record. Human Rights Watch is blaming the Burmese government for the Delta's slow recovery. The military blocked foreign aid for three weeks after the cyclone.

Phil Robertson, of Human Rights Watch, says even after the government accepted help, it still restricted relief efforts. Robertson said officials were holding up visas and putting customs arrangements in place at the airport that prevented slowed the delivery of aid.

"Then," according to Robertson, "They were restricting international aid workers to Rangoon."

Over time, aid workers gained more access to the Delta. But Robertson says the government steers the relief through companies and people connected to the military. He says the unsung heroes of the disaster are the Burmese people.

"People who organized, did their own fundraising. Got in cars, trucks and took the aid down into those areas and found people in need and helped distribute aid."

One of those people is Khin Zaw Win, a Rangoon-based consultant helping farmers rebuild along the Irrawaddy Delta. Even though the former political prisoner is not a supporter of the government, he acknowledges the military has come a long way in allowing aid groups to operate.

"For someone like me, someone like us, working day in and day out. We see that the picture is very much different. There is space to work in. They might not say it explicitly, but the local authorities, they welcome that."

The situation in the Delta said Khin Zaw WIn is so dire that local authorities will take any help they can get. But many foreign aid groups left the Delta before real recovery could take root.

"I don't think the local organizations can substitute for them, you know? The local organizations don't have that kind of resources. So maybe abandoned is a very strong word. But it comes very close to that."

Cyclone Nargis has flooded huge tracks of farmland with saltwater, wrecking the agriculture industry and contaminating fresh water supplies. The damaged farmland is now a breeding ground for insects and rats. Khin Zaw Win believes the entire Delta still must rebuild from the ground up -- with or without foreign help.