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Health and Human Rights in Burma

This project seeks to build the capacity of Burmese ethnic minority organizations and individuals to investigate, document and report on human rights violations in their communities; to engage in the democratization of Burma; and to advocate for survivors and witnesses to the ongoing crackdown in ethnic areas.

The Center, along with the Global Health Access Program and several human rights groups on the ground, will train health care workers along the borders of Thailand, India and China to investigate and document, on a population level, human rights violations in Burma’s hard-to-reach zones of conflict. The workshops will also provide intensive training in human rights principles, gender equality and social justice. Lastly, as activists, monks, nuns, students and others flee to areas under ethnic control, especially as a result of the Saffron Revolution in 2007, it will be critical to document their accounts and advocate on their behalf.  Following the landfall of Cyclone Nargis in May 2008, this project became an investigation of rights issues faced by survivors living in the cyclone-affected Delta.  Read further to learn more about the situation in the Delta and our collaborative report.

Supported by: The U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor

The report "Diagnosis: Critical Health and Human Rights in Eastern Burma" with results of over 27,000 surveys of indigenous populations was released by Dr. Cynthia Maung and Dr. Voravit Suwanvanichkij on Tuesday, October 19, 2010.  Press Release Report

Related Articles:
Increase of Burma Refugees Concerns Thai Health Workers (VOA News, 19 October 2010) Read
Rights Abuses Increase Health Crisis in Burma (Irrawaddy News, 19 October 2010) Read
Interview with Dr. Cynthia and Dr. Suwanvanichkij (Thai language, Thai PBS, 19 October 2010) Watch

Cyclone Nargis Hits Burma

Reports and Publications
Community-Based Assessment of Human Rights in a Complex Humanitarian Emergency
After the Storm: Voices from the Delta
Full Report
Executive Summary
Executive Summary (Thai)
27 Feb 09 - Press Release (Eng)
Press Release (Burmese)

Cyclone Nargis lashed Burma on May 2, 2008, making landfall in the Irrawaddy Delta, 220 km southwest of Rangoon. This was a massive cyclone which would have been a challenge for any country to address. In all, some 140,000 lives are thought to have been lost, and at least 3.4 million persons were directly affected. Nargis hit Burma, a country under longstanding military rule, at a crucial time—just days before a national referendum on a new military-backed constitution was planned. 

The response to Cyclone Nargis on the part of Burma’s ruling junta, the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), was profoundly affected by the junta’s policies, its practices toward its citizens generally, and by the political imperatives of the junta’s referendum priorities. The junta’s response was marred by failures to warn, failures to respond, limits on humanitarian assistance from independent Burmese NGOs and citizens, and limits on humanitarian assistance from international entities eager to assist. Furthermore, independent assessments of the Nargis response have proven to be challenging, while assessments done with the collaboration of the junta have reported little on the human rights situation for survivors and relief workers.

Before the storm, military rule in Burma has also been characterized by widespread human rights violations, including the violent suppression of the ‘Saffron Revolution’ in 2007, and severe curtailment in social spending. The official government expenditure on health is about $0.70 per capita per annum or 0.3% of the national GDP, amongst the lowest worldwide. The health and social services situation is more severe in rural and ethnic minority areas. In February 2008, the SPDC announced that it would hold a referendum on its new military-drafted constitution on May 10. The constitution had been drafted in secret by military-appointed representatives without the participation of the National League for Democracy (NLD) and the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD), winners of the 1990 elections which were never recognized by the regime. Against this complex and contested backdrop, the worst natural disaster ever to hit Burma made landfall.

Cyclone survivors return home after obtaining relief supplies from CBOs (June 2008, EAT)

An Independent Assessment of the Nargis Response
In response to reports of human rights abrogation in cyclone-affected areas, a collaborative group was formed which included the Emergency Assistance Team - Burma (EAT) and the Center for Public Health and Human Rights to conduct an independent assessment.  EAT-Burma is comprised of local volunteers (many of  whom are from cyclone-afflicted areas themselves) whose efforts are part of a larger ongoing effort of border-based social organizations which quickly respond to challenges, such as Cyclone Nargis, mobilizing through a network of other CBOs.With technical assistance provided by local organizations Global Heath Access Program and Karen Human Rights Group, two rounds of data collection were undertaken in the Irrawaddy Delta by the EAT teams: from June to September, and October to November, 2008. A total of 90 interviews were conducted in storm-affected areas (including in Irrawaddy Division) and in Thailand. Interviewees were 33 relief workers and 57 survivors. To date, this report is the only community-based independent assessment of the Nargis response conducted by relief workers operating free of SPDC control.  Using participatory methods and operating without the knowledge or consent of the Burmese junta or its affiliated institutions, this report brings forward the voices of those working “on the ground” and of survivors in the Cyclone Nargis-affected areas of Burma. The report, After the Storm: Voices from the Delta, reveals systematic obstruction of relief aid, willful acts of theft and sale of relief supplies, forced relocation, and the use of forced labor for reconstruction projects, including forced child labor.  The slow distribution of aid, the push to hold the referendum vote, and the early refusal to accept foreign assistance are evidence of the junta’s primary concerns for regime survival and political control over the well-being of the Burmese people. These EAT findings are evidence of multiple human rights violations and the abrogation of international humanitarian relief norms and international legal frameworks for disaster relief.  They may constitute crimes against humanity, violating in particular article 7(1)(k) of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, and a referral for investigation by the International Criminal Court should be made by the United Nations Security Council.

One year following the destruction of the cyclone, Sean Turnell discusses the situation on the ground in Burma and the challenges faced by EAT and other community-based groups.  Read

International media coverage of After the Storm:The NationMizzima
The TelegraphVoice of AmericaAFP/Daily Times
The GuardianChannel News AsiaRadio Free Asia
Irish TimesDemocratic Voice of BurmaNTDTV
Reuters/IntellAsiaAsia NewsIrrawaddy
Bangkok PosteIR (Turnell)e-Science


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