The interviewee, a 62-year-old farmer whose daughter-in-law and granddaughter were killed in the cyclone, said that although after the disaster some monks gave her paddy seed with which to replant her fields, the crop has failed.
“Even with fertilizer, the plants simply didn’t take or died,” Aye Yin told a reporter from the IRIN news service. “Some say it’s because of the salt water that inundated much of our fields. I don’t know. In any case, it doesn’t matter now.”
To get a little income, her grandson now collects empty water bottles from the streets and sells them to recyclers. The family has also received some assistance from the World Food Programme, but Aye Yin says that it isn’t enough.
“Now all we worry about is how we will survive the coming months,” she said. “I pray we won’t starve to death.”
She is going to have to pray harder. In November, the WFP is set to scale back its work in Burma’s delta, from general to “targeted” distributing of rice.
What this means for the region’s occupants is that over a quarter of a million people will soon find that they are no longer entitled to assistance. Another half million or so especially vulnerable people, or those joining food-for-work activities, will continue to receive something for a while longer.
U.N. agencies are putting on a brave face. A WFP spokesperson told the Voice of America that there is more work and food in the delta than before. Another with the Food and Agriculture Organization said recently that 97 percent of the paddy fields in affected areas had been successfully replanted.
These persons are doing their best to make it look like everything is going according to plan, but clearly it is not. Or rather, not according to their plan.
The delivery of rice and other things to people in the delta depends upon the whimsy of Burma’s top generals. It is they, not international bureaucrats, who have decided that the supply of food is to be cut.
Aid workers may in recent months have been getting along better with regional and local authorities than in the first weeks after the cyclone, but those officials have no say in what goes on. The men that matter are in Naypyidaw, Burma’s capital.
The WFP had intended to continue with general distributions until next May, a full year after the tragedy. This is much longer than most of its relief responses, acknowledging both the sheer scale of the disaster, in which an estimated 150,000 people died, and also the inability of what is effectively a subsistence economy to recover on its own.
But an order from above has put a stop to these well-laid plans, just as in July the government abruptly stopped the group from buying rice locally, obliging it to revert to imports from Thailand and India.
While for U.N. staff this sort of arbitrary decision making “poses a challenge,” for Aye Yin it is a threat to life. The elderly farmer, who from decades of hard experience understands military dictatorship far better than they, isn’t putting any stock in their work. She just hopes that the monks come back soon.
Unfortunately there’s no guarantee of that either. The remarkable efforts of both monasteries and countless members of the general public to help survivors in the weeks following the storm embarrassed a regime that insists upon taking credit for any amount of largesse delivered under its watch, no matter how large or small.
So while avenues were opened for some foreign aid groups in June, at the same time, for many local donors they were closed. Monks bringing help from other parts of the country, like those who met Aye Yin, have been blocked from travelling again; not at checkpoints, but through warnings issued by councils in their hometowns. And outspoken well-wishers like renowned comedian Zarganar have been arrested and charged with spreading “false news” about the disaster.
Whether the monks find the ways and means to return once the WFP disappears is yet to be seen, but in any event neither Aye Yin nor anyone else in her village will be fooled by nonsense about successfully replanted fields and a quick return of jobs and food. Nor should anyone else be.
“My son and I are now dependent on an eight-year-old boy,” Aye Yin remarked of her grandson, out collecting plastic bottles. “If he were in school, he would be in the third grade, but we have failed him.”
And we have failed her.
See also: Cyclone survivors fear food aid is set to end soon (The Irrawaddy)