Firsthand tale of Burma relief frustrations

22 June 2008

Tyche Hendricks, Chronicle Staff Writer
Friday, June 20, 2008

Richard Jacquot describes the cyclone that hit Burma on M... Richard Jacquot points to a place near the township of La...

(06-19) 18:10 PDT -- Nearly two months after Cyclone Nargis slammed into Burma's Irrawaddy Delta, humanitarian relief groups are still struggling to get government permission to deliver life-saving aid to 2 million survivors, said Richard Jacquot, a San Francisco resident and emergency program manager for Mercy Corps.

In a conversation with The Chronicle, Jacquot, who returned Sunday from a month in Burma, detailed the enormous frustrations and the modest triumphs of helping cyclone victims recover under the watchful eye of an authoritarian regime.

Although Burma's military leaders promised U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon a month ago that they would admit aid workers of all nationalities, they continue to restrict aid delivery, he said.

The French-born Jacquot has spent 24 years working in some of the hardest-hit war zones and disaster areas on the planet - from Sarajevo to Sudan and Congo to the Kurdish area of Iraq. He managed Hurricane Katrina recovery for Mercy Corps, an Oregon aid agency working in three dozen countries. Trained in international relations and economic development, Jacquot has worked for several humanitarian organizations coordinating emergency food, shelter, water, sanitation and health care.

The risks of providing aid in the midst of a war are manageable compared to the obstacles he confronted trying to deliver aid in Burma, said Jacquot, 58.

"You have to make contact with all the groups ... it's dangerous but you know the players," he said of his experiences in battle zones.

By contrast, in Burma, renamed Myanmar by the governing junta, "there's no rhyme or reason. You don't know why you can go here today and tomorrow you can't," said Jacquot. "It's the way an authoritarian regime works: It puts you off balance. That's the way it controls its population."

Jacquot spent a month in Rangoon, coordinating with colleagues in the delta town of Laputta over government-issued cell phones. He was not permitted to leave the city and they were unable to travel out of the delta. Satellite phones and Internet access was blocked by the government.

Mercy Corps has only been able to operate in Burma because it affiliated itself with a British medical aid group, Merlin, which had already been working in Burma and had a memorandum of understanding with the government to equip health centers in the Irrawaddy Delta. Like other aid groups, Mercy Corps and Merlin have relied heavily on Burmese staff and associates who have been able to move more freely.

The greatest frustration, said Jacquot, was watching millions of dollars worth of aid and hundreds of skilled relief workers stay bottled up in Rangoon while hundreds of thousands of survivors subsist on almost nothing after the May 3 storm, which took an estimated 134,000 lives.

"Imagine Katrina: it was already a pretty difficult challenge for the U.S. to handle," he said. "Now imagine the government has shut the area completely. No one is allowed inside and no aid is allowed to get in. The result is a population that needs assistance and cannot get it."

Mercy Corps and Merlin managed to install three large barges loaded with supplies on rivers in the delta, then used smaller boats to ferry food, plastic sheeting and other materials from the barges to the villages.

Jacquot's team has employed Burmese health workers to serve the remote communities along the rivers and hired local people to drain salt water and clear corpses out of rainwater reservoirs and prepare them to catch the monsoon rains again for drinking water.

Jacquot said he was moved by the ingenuity and initiative of Burmese people in reaching out to their countrymen in spite of government-erected obstacles.

"One of the side effects of a controlling government is that it triggers human creativity," he said. "What is extraordinary there is the response by local organizations. We have to admire them because they are taking a lot of risk."

The United Nations, along with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and the Burmese government, is conducting a comprehensive disaster assessment to be complete next month. Early reports indicate that a feared wave of disease and death has not materialized. But that doesn't mean that all is well in the Irrawaddy Delta, where families still huddle in shelters with their livestock and scrounge for food and fresh water, said Jacquot.

"The fact that there isn't secondary death doesn't mean they are not suffering," he said. "You hear people say, 'It's amazing how resilient they are.' But what choice do they have?"

Meanwhile, aid workers like Jacquot debate how best to proceed in the face of continuing government resistance to foreign aid.

"Some say providing a little bit of help is better than no help at all, others say we should challenge the government further," said Jacquot, now back in his San Francisco living room. "I don't know the answer but it's a dilemma everybody has to deal with."


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