August 10, 2015 / 12:35 PM / 2 years ago

Myanmar government, military win pre-vote plaudits for flood response

Storm victims carry aid from a military helicopter at Mrauk-U township, Rakhine state, August 5, 2015. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun

YANGON (Reuters) - Myanmar’s government and military have won rare praise for their handling of the country’s deadly floods, helping to erase criticism over a previous disaster and possibly bolstering support before a landmark election in November.

The floods, coinciding with the tail-end of a cyclone, have killed at least 99 people, left thousands homeless and inundated vast tracts of farmland. A massive relief operation is gathering speed with international help.

It is Myanmar’s biggest natural disaster since Cyclone Nargis killed nearly 140,000 people in May 2008. The military junta then ruling the country sparked global outrage by initially rejecting foreign aid and delaying large-scale relief efforts.

The reformist government that replaced the junta in 2011 has reacted differently; Myanmar quickly appealed for foreign aid, set up shelters for flood victims and cooperated with the same international aid community shunned after Nargis.

“There is some criticism that the government response is too slow, but compared with Nargis ... it is a huge improvement,” said political analyst Kyaw Lin Oo.

Also inviting comparison between the two disasters is President Thein Sein, an ex-general and the junta’s prime minister in 2008 who led the Nargis relief effort.

This time, he was quick to visit affected areas, and at a shelter on Sunday he sipped a glass of water from a purification plant in a gesture aimed at reassuring locals it was safe to drink.

The United Nations praised the government’s response. 

“Very quickly the authorities asked for international support and offered logistical means - planes, helicopters, navy boats - to get humanitarian personnel and equipment to areas that are not currently easily accessible,” said Pierre Peron, a U.N. spokesman.

Political heavyweights have got involved, three months before what could be the country’s first free and fair election in 25 years.

Presidential hopeful Shwe Mann, speaker of Myanmar’s lower house of parliament, toured flood-hit areas and appealed for foreign aid, as did opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

In a video posted on Facebook, Suu Kyi expressed concern that the floods could impact the election’s legitimacy. She recalled how a referendum on Myanmar’s military-drafted constitution was held in the aftermath of Nargis.

“This has raised many, many questions about ... how acceptable the results of the referendum were,” she said. “We do not want such questions to be raised this time with regard to our elections.”

RARE MILITARY APOLOGY

There has still been plenty of criticism as the authorities struggle to reach remote regions of the impoverished country.

Even state-run media have chimed in, with an op-ed in the Global New Light of Myanmar saying memories of Nargis “cast lingering doubts on the reliability of this democratic government.”

Human Rights Watch had accused the military of “brutal indifference” to the victims of Nargis.

Still powerful today, the military has been instrumental in getting aid to areas cut off by floods and landslides. It has also proved acutely sensitive to criticism of its efforts.

On Aug. 4, it issued a rare apology after photos circulated on Facebook showing dirty rice dropped from a military helicopter in worst-hit Rakhine State.

“We are very sorry to hear that some rations were dropped into mud and fragile aid was damaged. We are trying not to repeat these incidents,” read a statement on the Facebook page of armed forces chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing.

The struggle to survive in the western Rakhine State meant many people were losing interest in the election, said Oo Hla Saw, a leader of the local Arakan National Party.

“I think it will make the turn-out lower,” he said.

Additional reporting by Aung Hla Tun; Writing by Andrew R.C. Marshall; Editing by Simon Webb and Mike Collett-White

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