Burma's (Myanmar's) elite help with aid
Business leaders, some under US sanction, are delivering relief supplies.
Rangoon, Burma — While international aid groups and world leaders have been clamoring for greater access or accusing the government of Burma (Myanmar) of neglecting cyclone victims, the junta has effectively parceled out areas of the disaster zone to the country's corporate leaders.
They are a "who's who" of Burma's business class: powerful execs with close ties to the ruling military junta, some of them under Western sanctions for that reason.
Despite those connections – indeed, because they have enabled these men to distribute badly needed relief – foreign aid workers in Burma, their own efforts inhibited by the junta, are partnering with these businessmen-turned-relief workers.
"They've been doing a lot of good things. They have a lot of assets, and they've been putting it to good use," he says. "We've been coordinating at various levels to reach as many people as possible."
Burma's power class
A week after the May 2-3 cyclone Nargis left an estimated 134,000 dead or missing and 2.4 million more affected, the government put out a call asking business leaders to volunteer for relief operations, says James Kong, a Hong Kong-based surgeon and former head of Rangoon's Pun Hlaing International Hospital, who has returned to help his native Burma.
Some of them are under Western sanctions. Others hold foreign passports, work with business leaders across Asia, and have publicly listed companies on Asian markets.
On May 12, a number of executives formed the Cape Negrais Committee, named after the site where the cyclone first slammed into southern Burma's Irrawaddy Delta.
The team has so far helped 45,000 to 75,000 people on Middle Island, one of their areas of operation in the delta, says Mark Tippetts, an Englishman and longtime Burma resident who oversees the Pun Hlaing golf course, a favorite haunt of Burma's elite.
The hard-to-reach delta is where many of the more than one million people who have yet to receive aid are located, according to the United Nations.
Htoo Trading, led by young entrepreneur Tay Za, is operating in the delta's Bogale area. Tay Za came under US economic sanctions last October when President Bush tightened restrictions on ranking members of Burma's ruling junta and associated business groups.
Another company, Max Myanmar Ltd., is running relief operations in the town of Labutta.
'He's got boats'
Save the Children, a respected international organization which has reached about 300,000 cyclone survivors in Burma, is working closely with Serge Pun, the chairman of Yoma Bank and 40 other companies, who is not under US sanctions.
"I feel absolutely comfortable with our relationship with him," says Mr. Kirkwood, adding that, before accepting Pun's offer to help, the aid agency conducted a background check and concluded there was no reason to refuse.
"He's got boats and people and warehouses, and we've got lots of aid to deliver, and together we can get stuff to people who need it," Kirkwood continues.
Pun, who is pioneering private healthcare in Burma, flew back to the country on May 11 and converted his companies' executives, as well as doctors at Pun Hlaing hospital, into volunteer aid workers.
After some quick training on how to handle emergencies and trauma, 12 doctors and a team of nurses and support staff headed deep into the delta.
They endured seven-hour boat rides amid stormy currents and rain, says Joseph Lopez, chief operating officer at Pun Hlaing hospital.
Corporate efforts: good, not enough
International aid workers and Western diplomats are quick to praise the heroic response of private groups and individuals in Burma to the disaster.
But Western diplomats say this shouldn't distract from the regime's continued obstruction of foreign aid and equipment and refusal to allow many foreign experts into the disaster zone.
"There no doubt they [the business groups] are helping people get access to aid and medicine, says a Western diplomat.
"But rather than rely on local businesspeople with no aid experience, it makes more sense for experts to be allowed to mobilize properly," the diplomat continues.
Last Wednesday, a prominent entertainer and political activist known as Zarganar, who had led private relief operations in the Delta, was arrested at his home in Rangoon.
His detention may be linked to his background and his speaking out critically against the government to foreign media, says Win Min, an exiled Burmese professor in Chiang Mai, Thailand, adding that it sends a worrying signal to other private groups.
"If Zarganar can be arrested, anyone can be arrested if the government is angered by what you're doing" in the delta, says Win Min.
Media reports have carried accounts of Burmese being prevented from driving to the delta with aid supplies and of private trucks being seized by police and soldiers.