By Emma Batha
LONDON, Sept 28 (AlertNet) - The death of a Japanese photographer during a police crackdown on mass protests in Myanmar has triggered speculation that Tokyo could suspend humanitarian aid to the country, one of the poorest in the world.
That would be a blow given the relatively small amount of international assistance flowing to Myanmar, which has been under military rule for 45 years. Aid agencies are calling on donors to reach deeper into their pockets.
"International assistance is $2.50 per person per year - possibly the lowest in the world, perhaps barring North Korea," said Save the Children's country representative Andrew Kirkwood.
Neighbouring countries, like Cambodia and Laos, get 15 to 20 times more per head.
Aid workers say governments are reluctant to provide help because of Myanmar's repressive regime and some want political changes before they cough up more aid.
"That seems to me a little bit absurd. We need assistance now," Kirkwood told AlertNet by phone from the capital Yangon.
He said aid agencies in Myanmar were providing valuable help to thousands of people, independent of the regime.
"The international community does not want to give money to Myanmar. But by doing a humanitarian boycott - although no one would call it that - you are punishing the people of Myanmar," said Frank Smithuis, country manager for medical agency Medecins Sans Frontieres Holland.
Contrary to widespread perceptions, Smithuis said MSF and other agencies could provide health and education services to people directly. "We do reach people in need. This may be hard to believe, but there's no (military) general standing between us and our patients. You can come over and we will show you."
Britain is one of the bigger donors, giving £8.8 million ($17.9 million) a year, but this is tiny compared to what it gives other countries. If Britain gave people in Myanmar as much aid per head as people in Africa, it would have to increase its aid to £80 million a year, according to a report compiled by British members of parliament.
Other key donors include Japan, which provides about 3 billion yen ($26 million) annually, and the European Union, which gave around $22 million last year.
The most obviously absent donor is the United States.
"U.S. funding is almost non-existent. There's no question they should do more," Kirkwood said, adding that many EU countries could also give more.
Aid workers admitted they faced constraints in the country. One expert on Myanmar, who didn't want to be named, said phones and emails were monitored and most meaningful discussions took place face to face. International aid staff were not allowed to travel freely and had to get permission to leave the capital three weeks ahead of their trip.
But Smithuis said access was possible in most areas of Myanmar. "It's true there are some areas where expats are not allowed, and that is a concern to MSF. But in a country of 55 million people, if you don't have access to half a million does that mean you shouldn't work there and you should neglect the other 54.5 million?
"The international community should give more money to the people of Myanmar."
Save the Children said lack of funding was a far greater hindrance to their work than the restrictions imposed by the military junta.
"There are operational constraints but in no way, shape or form are they such that we cannot deliver good quality programmes," Kirkwood said.
But not everyone agrees.
The Global Fund stopped grants to Myanmar for programmes on HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria in 2005, saying government restrictions made it impossible to ensure the aid would be used effectively.
MSF's French section also pulled out in 2006, closing malaria and other health programmes in the Mon and Karen states in the east.
Programme manager Dr Herve Isambert complained that the military authorities had applied pressure on local health authorities not to cooperate with his teams and that travel restrictions made it difficult to reach people.
"The Burmese regime wants absolute control over any humanitarian actor present in these politically-sensitive regions," Isambert said at the time.
The crisis which erupted this month was sparked by massive fuel price hikes. People were already living hand to mouth and the price rises tipped them over the edge.
Kirkwood said a third of households lived below the poverty line in Myanmar, which was one of the few countries where children were likely to have worse health and education than their parents.
"Children face some of the worst poverty in Asia. At least a third of children are chronically malnourished - 132,000 children die before their fifth birthday due to avoidable diseases and we think malnutrition is the underlying cause in half these deaths," he added.
Action Against Hunger said the number of malnourished children receiving treatment in its feeding centres in the western town of Sittwe had risen by more than 60 percent in less than a month. This was mainly due to inflation and fuel price increases which had bumped up the cost of rice, the staple food.
Aid workers said it was impossible to speculate what long-term effect the uprising would have.
"You would have to be clairvoyant to know how this will play out," Kirkwood said. "But what's important is that regardless of how this current crisis ends ... these underlying economic and social problems are not going away.
"The regime needs to understand that its inappropriate economic policies ... are a primary cause of the humanitarian crisis. The international community needs to increase its assistance."
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