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Not many foreign humanitarian workers have been allowed into Burma in the wake of Nargis, but there was already an aid community in Burma, working quietly on humanitarian, economic development, and health projects. And a few hundred aid workers and journalists have managed to get in. A friend happened to have a visa and is one of them. He’s investigating the role of information in humanitarian assistance in this most difficult of cases, and allowed me to share his posts.

In more open circumstances, projects to provide humanitarian information to victims, support for local journalism and media communities to cover relief and reconstruction efforts, and projects to ensure that the voices and perspectives of victims are heard would be able to openly coordinate and collaborate with all aspects of the relief effort. They’d be working with grassroots and national efforts, with international agencies, and government projects. In Burma, while it’s possible to imagine such projects, the challenge is mostly political – building relationships, coordinating with external government assistance, the UN and other agencies that could provide legitimate access, and debating whether and how to work more informally.

At the same time, in Yangoon, life is picking up again and that odd quiet that follows a disaster seems to have fallen over the city. My friend writes:

It’s a very peculiar place to be, Rangoon, right now, because life feels pretty normal even though you know that just a few km away, there’s terrible death and destruction and yet nothing we can do about it. So the few hundred Westerners who’ve managed to get in to Burma to “help out” hang out in the city’s dozen decent-class hotel bars in the evenings, talking about past disasters and lamenting our uselessness in this one. During the day we all work hard figuring out what we might do if only we were allowed into the disaster area and relating stories about who tried to get in and failed.

Being an ICT junkie, he’s spending his time mulling over Internet and telecoms access in Yangoon – and noticing that despite the disaster, incremental improvement in access continues. Two years ago, for instance, Internet cafes were few, and the atmosphere somewhat hostile. That’s changed, surprisingly, even in the wake of the monk’s protests of 2007. For those interested in the details, he reports:

One of my favorite internet cafes in Yangon is Spider Web, which is buried deep inside the second building up the street from the Park Royal hotel. It’s big, it’s fast (well, relatively), they are happy to help you plug in your own computer (e.g. the cybercafé control software doesn’t require client software to allow access) or circumvent or whatever. It’s also a fun place–full of people generally enjoying themselves–raucous youth gaming (often betting), students looking earnest, mid-aged folks e-mailing or even VoIPing with relatives, tech people congregating to exchange hardware or computing literature, etc.

I attach a picture of their sign which I took in January–it’s now completely gone (presumably because of the cyclone). This time (compared to three months ago), they had a little store attached to it which sells, pretty much exclusively, networking stuff. Among the 12 different models of 802.11x APs they had in stock 5 min ago, the cheapest was MMK70K (USD1 = MMK1100). The cheapest 802.11x NIC was MMK50K.

Unlike three months ago, many of the hotels and internet cafes now have wi-fi, although they don’t always know how to use it well. So, it’s arrived in a major way.

I’ve now had two taxi drivers who, when they see me pull my computer out to work & call on my way between meetings, grin and say “internet!” … so there’s some knowledge diffusion going on … even if they don’t generally use the internet themselves …

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Incredible, painful, moving site on the Myanmar disaster. http://komyo.burmachannel.com/.

A friend, K, writes:

Its not great journalism as such but it’s also, sadly, important testimonial work at this point – the gathering and reporting for the record and for family tracing purposes as well. Difficult work for Burmese, by Burmese about what has happened, and how it looks almost 7 days later.

The site contains many graphic images of death, and in a newspaper would be controversial material. I’m in the camp that generally supports publishing such images, whether in natural disasters or war, and regardless of the nationality of the victims.

US newspapers rarely show images of death so directly, though its tendency is to do so more frequently in the developing world than for images of US victims, and especially, war victims. A friend at the NY Times says that there’s no hard and fast editorial policy for showing such pictures, but rather, that it’s based on a judgment about newsworthiness, and includes concerns such as overexposure and consequent numbing of the effects of such images, and a concern over gratuitous graphics. Different cultures also apply different standards to the depiction of death. In the former Soviet Union, for instance, intensely graphic images are commonplace. Read Barbie Zelizer, “Death in Wartime: Photographs and the ‘Other War’ in Afghanistan” for an interesting analysis of this. Barbie also writes more broadly about visual culture and war, especially on the Holocaust, and is a useful starting point for a broader investigation into the subject.

One of the more devastating images:

Komyo also has good links to other Burma blogs, mostly political. Komyo is in Burmese, but a few links have English-language sections. See Freedom for Burma: Burmese Bloggers w/o Borders as an example.

Note for this site, for the most part I’m using Burma or Myanmar depending on whether the sources uses one or the other. I’m tempted to say that this disaster is occurring in Myanmar, but to Burma. The human elements are driven by the facts of the state of Myanmar, but the affected have been people with no real enfranchisement or say in the direction of their governance. Now, it looks as if the south will be disenfranchised from the upcoming constitutional referendum.

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With the rest of the world I’ve been following Myanmar/Burma and Cyclone Nargis. I’ve had the opportunity to work on several humanitarian information responses in Asia in the past few years, including lots of involvement in Sri Lanka post-tsunami, Pakistani-administered Kashmir post-earthquake, and some work with Aceh post-tsunami, Jogjakarta post-earthquake, and Timor Leste and political violence. So I’m particularly interested in how information to affected populations can improve humanitarian assistance.

In my experience working with colleagues at Internews, I’m convinced that information access should be a core part of humanitarian assistance strategy. Providing information to people in humanitarian disasters enables them to make informed decisions in a number of ways. For instance:

– information about how they can help themselves, on issues such as public health, sanitation, shelter, and safe locations.

– information about where to find external assistance, food, medical care and supplies, and how to find friends and family.

Information and communications networks should also include projects that help people in humanitarian disasters voice their concerns and perspectives back to governments and the humanitarian community.

For a more complete argument, see the Internews Pakistan project on the Kashmiri earthquake, this article in Developments Magazine, and last year’s Symposium for Information on Humanitarian Action.

While humanitarian information needs of victims are not usually a distinct part of the UN’s appeals process, UN-OCHA does recognize the value of information in disaster zones. The UN’s Humanitarian Information Centres (HICs), however, are much more focused on interagency coordination, information-sharing among humanitarian organizations, and outreach to international media, then on providing information to victims, in assisting them to voice their concerns, or in working with local journalism communities to find and disseminate information. Read about latest efforts and appeals at ReliefWeb.

On the technology side, INSTEDD, Microsoft Humanitarian Systems, Telecoms Sans Frontieres, Sahana, and all the participants at various Strong Angel events all seek technology solutions for rapid response communications and information networks after humanitarian disasters. Most of these tools are aimed at facilitating information among humanitarian and government responders, though some can also be used to improve information delivery to victims, via SMS text-messaging services, for instance.

While an information component is a vital part of humanitarian response, the presence of early warning systems existing, redundant information and communication and broadcast networks, a community of media outlets and journalists, and an active public sphere are vital to a community’s ability to bounce back after a disaster. This is a key part of an argument to treat information and communications infrastructure and access not just as an political right, but as a key element in development and public safety policies.

Myanmar’s restrictions on information and communications, including restrictions on news, spotty and restricted Internet access, and extremely high cost of cellular phone service, together with a lack of technical capacity in-country to work on media technologies, means that getting accurate information about the disaster has been very difficult, and providing information to victims even more challenging.

Myanmar, by the way, as a member of ASEAN, has signed the Agreement on Disaster Management and Early Response, and thereby has international commitments to uphold in regard to early warning networks, international cooperation and coordination, and relief and rehabilitation after humanitarian disasters. Article 7, Disaster Early Warning, says:

1. The Parties shall, as appropriate, establish, maintain and periodically review national disaster early warning arrangements including:

a. regular disaster risk assessment;

b. early warning information systems;

c. communication network for timely delivery of information; and

d. public awareness and preparedness to act upon the early warning information.

2. The Parties shall co-operate, as appropriate, to monitor hazards which have trans-boundary effects, to exchange information and to provide early warning information through appropriate arrangements.

It’s clearly a question as to whether Myanmar has met its commitments. Reports from organizations working there cite downed phone lines and a general lack of communications options as a great hindrance to gathering accurate information about numbers of dead and missing, needs of victims for essentials, and possibilities of disease outbreaks. Those with technologies to assist have in the main not been granted access to enter the country.

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