Thursday, 29 May 2008
Even a calamity the size of Cyclone Nargis hasn't stopped construction in the newly built capital of Naypyitaw (nay-pee-DAW), Senior Gen Than Shwe's extravagant vanity project. The junta leader and his team of generals have overseen its making since 2005.
Gen Than Shwe's rising Shangri-La of official-dom contrasts starkly with the misery in the rest of the country, one of the poorest and most repressed in the world.
A sign outside one government office read, 'Can I Help You?' But a few hundred miles south, that was an offer in short supply where thousands of homeless survivors begged for food on the roadsides.
The cyclone's floodwaters have left more than 2 million people hungry, homeless and at risk of disease. The xenophobic government has admitted it needs foreign expertise and US$11 billion (S$15 billion) to rebuild.
But it waited nearly a month to allow some foreign aid workers access to the disaster zone.
During a visit to Naypyitaw, Gen Than Shwe and other top generals received UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon last Friday and granted a small group of foreign journalists a rare glimpse inside his palatial compound.
The journey began with a one-hour flight aboard a chartered government plane from Yangon, the former capital known as Rangoon.
The 250-mile drive north to the generals' capital can take a half-day along a potholed two-lane road.
There has never been an official explanation of why the capital was moved so far inland. Some have speculated the junta feared a US invasion. Others say Gen Than Shwe, known to be superstitious, consulted an astrologer. Burmese leaders before him have relocated their seats of power several times.
From the airport, it was a 40-minute drive on a Los Angeles-style eight-lane highway - the widest and smoothest road in the country - to Gen Than Shwe's opulent meeting room.
Virtually no cars or people were seen, aside from workers hand-sweeping the roadside.
Entering the city required passage through a fenced checkpoint along the highway. The capital has 24-hour electricity, a rarity in Myanmar, but forget cell phone service or international flights.
Soldiers greeted the VIP motorcade with salutes as it moved along the main road, passing sprawling new golf courses and resorts with signs like 'The Thingaha - uber cool.' Few people were spotted anywhere.
Inside one resort, well-groomed waiters served cool green melon drinks. At another stop, the group was offered a buffet of seafood, noodles and other local fare on elegant wooden tables. The five-star luxury hotels featured circular driveways, gleaming fountains, shady foyers and sunny pools.
The capital, segregated into military and civilian districts, is surrounded by hills believed to hold a hive of bunkers. Bronze statues of three former Burmese kings pay tribute to a history of military might. Naypyitaw means 'abode of kings' in Burmese.
Inside the military area were a shopping mall, a high school built like a fortress and a stadium described by one local official as 'a training ground for parading.' International reporters are rarely allowed into the country, except to cover the annual military parade.
A sightseeing tour of half-built government buildings led through a massive construction site of unfinished Soviet-style facades.
Workers lined up to wave at the passing UN diplomats and foreign press.
There was also little sign of life near some of the city's 1,200 new four-storey apartment complexes.
Once at Than Shwe's pillared compound, armed guards greeted the group, leading them through a two-story entrance hall that opened onto a 15-foot rock sculpture topped with a serene alpine mural.
General Than Shwe apologises
Gen Than Shwe and the UN chief sat side by side on throne-like chairs with floral upholstery, separated by a bouquet of pink and white flowers and a silver tea set. Chandeliers and ceiling-high depictions of golden pagodas adorned the room.
'He told me that he has never had any such candid meeting with anybody else in the world,' Mr Ban said, hoping that the face-to-face session would hasten the regime's willingness to accept outside help for cyclone victims.
Naypyitaw is far removed from the hard reality in the rest of the impoverished country, where one in three children is malnourished and many people scrape by on $1 a day.
The senior general, who failed to complete high school, had repeatedly ignored Mr Ban's phone calls and letters immediately after the cyclone.
Gen Than Shwe thanked Ban for his letters, and apologised for not replying, UN officials said. The junta leader said he had no time to personally reply in the aftermath of what he called the worst disaster in the country's history.
He and two top officials who greeted Ban wore matching khaki-green military uniforms laden with medals, their neatly pressed shirts open at the neck.
Only rarely has Than Shwe been seen in civilian clothes. At the 2006 wedding of his daughter, he wore an orange sarong and white shirt. A secret video of the lavish ceremony surfaced on YouTube, causing outrage in the impoverished country.
In person, Gen Than Shwe is more diminutive than his larger-than-life public persona. Short and bespectacled, the stocky 76-year-old who is known as 'the bulldog' was silent when asked by a Western reporter if he had any comment for the outside world.
Behind the giant wooden doors, Gen Than Shwe did all the talking for the first 50 minutes of the two-hour-and-10-minute meeting, according to UN officials.
At the end, Mr Ban walked away with a promise of more access for foreign aid workers to the hard-hit Irrawaddy delta region.
'This is just the beginning of my dialogue and communication with the Myanmar authorities,' Mr Ban said. 'Let us see how this will develop.' -- AP
Greater numbers of foreign aid staffers also were entering the Irrawaddy delta, a low-lying region which took the brunt of the May 2-3 cyclone, the U.N. said in a statement.
"I went to some areas where no international relief personnel had been to, and the priorities for these people are food and shelter. We're going to be working very hard to deliver these items to them," Tony Banbury, regional head of the U.N. World Food Program, told AP Television News Thursday.
Banbury, flying in a helicopter, visited a number of villages cut off from the rest of the world on a tour of the delta Tuesday.
The storm left an estimated 2.4 million people in desperate need of food, shelter and medical care, according to the U.N. The government says the cyclone killed 78,000 people and left 56,000 missing.
Myanmar's leaders are leery of foreign aid workers and international agencies, worrying they could weakened the junta's grip on power. The generals also don't want their people to see aid coming directly from countries like the U.S. that the junta has long treated as a hostile power.
They only allowed foreign aid workers in after U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon met with junta leader Senior Gen. Than Shwe last weekend.
Since then the regime appears to have kept its promise to allow humanitarian workers from all countries into the country and allow them access to the delta.
The U.N. statement said the last 45 pending visas had been granted to its staffers, while Save the Children, Doctors Without Borders and the U.N. Children's Fund have sent more than 14 workers into the delta in recent days.
While garnering some praise for opening up to the international aid community, global powers have voiced outrage at a decision by the government to extend the detention of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi just days after donors pledged large sums of money to help the cyclone victims.
Several countries, including the United States, Britain and France, issued biting statements about the regime's order to keep the Nobel peace laureate under house arrest for a sixth year.
"This measure testifies to the junta's absence of will to cooperate with the international community," French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said in a statement.
He called on Myanmar's government to "free without delay" Suu Kyi and other political prisoners and opposition members being held. Suu Kyi has been held for more than 12 of the past 18 years, becoming a symbol of the junta's intolerance of dissent.
Many nations critical of Myanmar's abuses had put politics aside to help survivors of Cyclone Nargis. Representatives from 50 nations pledged up to $150 million Sunday, while remaining quiet about Suu Kyi's plight.
But some of those countries expressed frustration Wednesday, a day after the junta extended Suu Kyi's detention amid the international community's outpouring of goodwill.
"Given the terrible human tragedy that has unfolded in Burma, the Australian government has recently tempered its remarks so far as the Burmese military regime has been concerned," said Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith, using another name for Myanmar. "But this particular matter cannot go without comment."
Smith expressed "regret" over Suu Kyi's extended detention.
In Washington, President Bush said Tuesday he was "deeply troubled" by the detention order, but stressed the U.S. would continue to provide cyclone aid. He called on the regime to free all political prisoners and begin genuine dialogue with Suu Kyi that would lead to a transition to democracy.
Her National League for Democracy party denounced the extension of house arrest as illegal, saying it would launch an appeal. Party spokesman Nyan Win said the government should also hold a public hearing on the case.
Under Myanmar law, people deemed security threats can be detained for a maximum of five years without trial. The regime has not officially announced its decision to extend Suu Kyi's detention or explain why it is violating its own law. An official confirmed the extension, but insisted on not being quoted by name because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
Foreign Secretary David Miliband of Britain said he was "saddened, if not surprised" by the decision.
"That she will spend her 63rd birthday next month in total isolation is an indictment of the regime," he said in a statement.
Indonesian Foreign Minister Hasan Wirayuda said Suu Kyi's continued detention went against the "goodwill of the international community" in its efforts to aid Myanmar in its moment of need.
While the U.N. secretary-general expressed regret over Suu Kyi's continued arrest, he praised "a new spirit of cooperation" between the junta and the international community in the aid effort. The U.N. said some of its foreign staffers had begun moving into the delta and emergency food supplies were being ferried in on its helicopters.
World Vision said it received permission to send two teams, including five international staffers, into the Irrawaddy delta Thursday. Japan planned to send a medical team to the delta Thursday, Foreign Minister Masahiko Komura said.
The French warship Mistral arrived in neighboring Thailand on Wednesday to unload 1,000 tons of humanitarian supplies that will be transported into Myanmar by the U.N. The junta refuses to allow U.S., French and British warships to deliver emergency supplies in Myanmar.
Navy Adm. Timothy Keating, chief of the U.S. Pacific Command, said the Navy would probably withdraw its vessels within days, unless the government allows it to unload their supplies.
The admiral said it was not too late for the Navy to contribute to the relief effort. He described the sailors and Marines aboard the ships as "desperate" to provide help.
The junta has allowed 70 flights by U.S. Air Force C-130s to bring in water and other relief supplies from a base in Thailand, Keating said.
The regime considers its biggest threat to be Suu Kyi, daughter of the country's martyred independence leader, Gen. Aung San. She was awarded her Nobel prize in 1991 for her nonviolent attempts at promoting democracy and is widely popular.
Her National League for Democracy won elections in 1990, but the military refused to accept the results and has crackdown on its activists since then. But the party remains country's largest legal opposition group and has the support of millions of citizens.
YANGON (Reuters) - Myanmar's junta lashed out at offers of foreign aid on Thursday, criticising donors' demands for access to the Irrawaddy delta and saying Cyclone Nargis' 2.4 million victims could "stand by themselves".
"The people from Irrawaddy can survive on self-reliance without chocolate bars donated by foreign countries," the Kyemon newspaper said in a Burmese-language editorial.
As with all media, it is tightly controlled by the army and is thought to reflect the thinking of the top generals, who until now have shown signs of growing, albeit grudging, acceptance of outside cyclone assistance.
The editorial also accused the international community of being stingy, noting that the United Nations' $201 million (102 millions pound) "flash appeal" was still a long way from being full nearly four weeks after the disaster, which left 134,000 dead or missing.
The level of aid stands in stark contrast to the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, when outside governments promised $2 billion within a week of the disaster.
"Myanmar needs about $11 billion. The pledging amounted to over $150 million, less than the $201 million mentioned by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon as emergency aid," it said, adding a thinly veiled swipe at arch-enemy the United States.
"There is one big nation that even extended economic sanctions on Myanmar although it had already been known that Myanmar was in for a very powerful storm," it said.
The tone of the editorial is at odds with recent praise of the U.N. relief effort, but follows criticism of the junta's extension on Tuesday of the five-year house arrest of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
U.S. President George W. Bush said he was "deeply troubled" by the extension and called for the more than 1,000 political prisoners to be freed.
The State Department said it would not affect U.S. cyclone aid, but a top U.S. commander said warships laden with aid would leave waters near the delta if they did not get a green light soon.
France, which diverted a naval vessel to the Thai island of Phuket where it would offload aid supplies, demanded the immediate release of Suu Kyi, who has now spent nearly 13 of the last 18 years in prison or under house arrest.
"France calls on the Burmese authorities to free without delay Ms Aung San Suu Kyi, the leaders of the opposition and political prisoners, notably those who have been arrested in recent days," the Foreign Ministry said.
Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) won a 1990 poll by a landslide only to be denied power by the military, which has ruled the impoverished country for 46 years.
The situation remains dire for many survivors in the delta, the "rice bowl of Asia" in the days before what was then Burma won independence from Britain in 1948.
The army has started to bury bodies in communal graves, villagers said, although there has been no official word on plans to dispose of the thousands of bodies that still litter the fields and waterways.
Bodies are grotesquely bloated or rotting to the bone and covered in swarms of flies. The stench of death remains strong.
"The soldiers told everyone to shoo, to go away," one woman said at a communal burial site in Khaw Mhu, 40 km (25 miles) southwest of Yangon, where soldiers covered bodies in "white powder" and then concreted over them.
In Dedaye, also in the delta, a boatman said there were around 40 or 50 dead bodies in one waterway.
"We did the burial ourselves. If I know the dead person, I'll bury his body. If he knows the other dead person, he'll bury it."
FEWER THAN HALF GET HELP
Three weeks after the cyclone's 120 mph (190 kph) winds and sea surge devastated the delta, the U.N. says it is slowly being given more access, with all its staff with pending visas requests being granted permission to enter the country.
However, getting aid and access to the delta remains a very different proposition. The latest assessment from the U.N.'s disaster response arm suggests fewer than half of victims have had any help from "local, national or international actors".
Witnesses say many villages have received no food, clean water or shelter, and farmers are struggling against huge odds to plant a new crop to avoid long-term food shortages.
"We have only until June to plant the main rice crop," one farmer called Huje said in the village of Paw Kahyan Lay, 40 km (25 miles) southwest of Yangon.
"Our fields are flooded with salt-water and we have no water buffalo to plough with," the 47-year-old said, standing with his daughter in the ruins of their home.
(Writing by Ed Cropley; Editing by Darren Schuettler)
Editing by Mungpi
New Delhi (Mizzima) – The lives of many survivors are at stake and many are dying because of the slow pace at which Burma's military rulers are allowing relief supplies and aid workers to reach cyclone-hit regions, campaigners and local aid workers said.
"The situation demands a large number of international aid workers or experts," said a local aid worker, who has been supplying relief material to victims in Irrawaddy region.
Saving lives is now akin to 'a race against time' and more aid workers as well as an abundant supply of relief materials are needed as the majority of cyclone survivors still have not received aid, she added.
"They (expert aid workers) are needed to monitor aid supply and to make sure that it reaches the right people at the right time," the aid worker, who declined to be named, said.
She said despite several aid agencies already working to help the cyclone victims, the extent of devastation and the people affected by the cyclone does not match the amount of aid that has so far reached the area.
Despite Than Shwe's promise to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon that international aid workers will be allowed to enter the cyclone affected areas 'regardless of nationality', aid groups said only a few of their expatriate aid workers have so far received permission to go into the Irrawaddy delta, the region most affected by the cyclone.
Paul Risley the spokesperson of World Food Programme in Bangkok said, "Our country director travelled yesterday and spent last night in Laputta and came back today. That was the first overnight stay by international staff from WFP in the delta."
He said the WFP, with a few international aid workers who arrived recently, has 26 international staff members in Rangoon now.
"We got visas for seven of our staff here in Bangkok on Monday. Several staff members are travelling today and tomorrow," Risley said.
He also said they are hoping to send in several international staff members from Rangoon to cyclone-hit Irrawaddy delta's Laputta, Pyapon, Bogale and other towns for a long term or over several weeks.
"We have received permission for them to travel there [Irrawaddy delta]," Paul Risley said.
However, the progress in the UN, Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the Burmese government's agreement is too little, an advocacy group Alternative Asean Network on Burma (Altsean Burma) said.
"The progress is tardy and it is just not enough," Debbie Stothard, Coordinator of the Altsean Burma said. "They (UN) are allowing Than Shwe to keep holding the people as hostages."
"The problem now is not the suffering because of the cyclone but the problem is because of the junta, they are a bigger disaster than Cyclone Nargis," said Debbie Stothard.
Amanda Pitt, spokesperson of the UN Office of Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) in Bangkok, however, said there has been some progress made on the promise made by Burma's military rulers.
"The process is progressing but it is too early to say," Pitt told Mizzima, declining further comment on what the progress was.
But not withstanding the UN's acknowledgement that there are signs of progress in terms of getting aid to the most affected people, Mark Farmaner Director of Burma Campaign UK said, Burma's rulers have lied on their agreement with the UN chief.
"We have information that there is no proper access to the delta. In London aid workers have had their visas turned down," Farmaner, the London based campaigner said.
"Ban Ki-moon's efforts have failed to secure a breakthrough which was needed," he added.
Meanwhile, in a ridiculous development, the Burmese Embassy in India's capital city of New Delhi has told a few Indian social workers, who have volunteered to go into Burma to help cyclone victims, that their visa process would take at least two months.
In Rangoon, international aid workers, who have been given visas for entry, are reportedly sitting in their office, as the government has not yet cleared their documents to let them into the delta region, Mizzima's correspondent said.
But the correspondent said in a significant move six UNICEF workers have been let into delta on Tuesday.
But the correspondent, who went visiting offices of international aid agencies, described the scene at the office saying, "International staff members are still sitting in the offices sipping coffee and tea in Rangoon."
But in the Delta, where the cyclone hit the hardest, people are seen lining up on the roadside waiting for vehicles that may carry relief supplies, local aid workers said.
The local aid worker, who talked to Mizzima over telephone said, "There is not enough food and relief supplies for the people and many more are without any aid as we cannot afford to go everywhere."
Debbie Stothard from Altsean said, this is the time for the international community to act but they are playing games with the rules set by the military government.
"It is no time for diplomacy, it is time to be realistic, it is time to tell the truth about what is going on," she added.
Chiang Mai – The Burmese military junta continues to crack down on the Opposition arresting about 30 youth activists on Tuesday evening.
Youth members of the National League for Democracy, Burma's main opposition party were arrested by the Special Branch of the police from their residence, Naing Ngan Linn information in-charge of the NLD youth wing said.
"So far we could only get the name of Kyi Lwin from South Dagon from among those arrested last night," Naing Ngan Linn said.
While still unable to get the names of the arrested NLD members, he said they were rounded up in the evening after 18 out of the 24 NLD youth members were arrested earlier for marching towards Daw Aung San Suu Kyi's house demanding her release.
A police source in Rangoon, however, told Mizzima that Kyi Lwin, the only person so far identified, was rounded up by the Special Branch of the police, local police and ward level officials.
"According to information I have, the authorities are searching for activists with their photographs. I think they must have taken photographs of those who held protests yesterday in front of the NLD office," Naing Ngan Linn said.
However, NLD spokesperson Nyan Win said he had not heard of the fresh arrests.
"I have not heard of any other arrests, all I know is that yesterday afternoon 18 activists were arrested. They have not yet been released. There is a twelve year old boy among them. And we don't know where they have been kept," Nyan Win said.
Among those arrested on Tuesday afternoon are– Saw Pyih Phyo Aung, Phyo Ko Naing, Thet Min Soe, Tun Win Thein, Hla Myo Naing, Aung Pe, Tun Tun Win, Pyih Pyih, Kyaw Myo Naing, Yan Naing Tun, Maung San, Moe Kyaw Zin, Linn Aung Tun, Win Min Aung, Htet Htet Wai Oo and her twelve-year old son Ye Yint Min Htet Oo.
About 24 NLD youth on Tuesday held a brief protest in front of the party head office in west Shwegondine in Bahan Township, and marched towards party leader Aung San Suu Kyi's residence on University Avenue shouting slogans like "Free.. Free.. Aung San Suu Kyi", "We need… immediate aid".
But their protest march was short-lived because the police who were waiting for them on Kaba Aye Pagoda Street in three 'Dyna' light trucks rounded them up. While several activists escaped, 18 were arrested.
The Irrawaddy News
Burma’s press censors are closely vetting local newspaper reports on the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis, according to journalists in Rangoon.
The chief editor of one journal said in-depth reporting from the cyclone-devastated areas was being cut by the censorship board.
“Three of my stories which describe the hard-hit areas and the plight of survivors were censored,” he said.
Another Rangoon journalist told The Irrawaddy: “It is very shameful that the real story about how people need help cannot be told. The government doesn’t want people, especially the international community, to know that so many survivors are still waiting for aid.”
Burmese newspapers report that sales leapt following the cyclone. “Readers are hungry for information,” said one senior member of a newspaper group.
There were calls by several Western countries at Sunday’s international aid conference in Rangoon for access to be given to the cyclone-hit areas by the foreign press.
The Czech Republic’s representative at the conference, Jirí Sitler, said media access was “very important” to ensure “full transparency” and monitor the Burmese regime’s adherence to its promise to allow international relief workers into the devastated areas.
Many villages in cyclone affected areas in the Irrawaddy delta are still waiting for food, shelters and supplies, according to Burmese aid workers who visited villages in the Kyungyangone, Nyaungdone and Dedaye areas.
"People who were begging there are now being forcibly removed form the roadside," said a Burmese aid worker who returned from Dedaye. "It’s really a depressing situation there."
The aid worker said access to the hardest-hit areas is still a major issue. Most small villages close to the sea haven't received any assistance yet. "People are just dying," she said.
Almost four weeks after Nargis slammed into Burma, the conditions for refugees have improved only in small, incremental steps. The majority of survivors have yet to see aid of any kind.
After the international donors and high-ranking officials who attended the donor conference in Rangoon on Sunday left, a senior diplomat based in Rangoon shared his pessimism.
"Even if they get aid in cash, they (military leaders) will build roads and bridges—it won't reach down to people,” he said.
The aid worker who returned from Dedaye said aid is reaching there but starvation in nearby towns is visible.
"We have seen many traumatized people," she said. "Some people received some onions and potatoes and two nails for each family (to rebuild houses)," she said.
She said many villages where fishermen and their families live close to the sea have no shelter or food, let alone aid workers.
The UN estimated that 1 million out of 2.5 million in the affected area has received any aid assistance so far.
The UN has been tentatively testing the commitment of Burmese officials following the agreement with the junta’s top leader, Snr-Gen Than Shwe, to allow "all aid workers" to go in and save lives.
This was regarded as a breakthrough by international observers and UN officials, who remained cautious however. Kathleen Cravero of the United Nations Development Programme said that six visas were issued to UN staff on Tuesday.
However, there are still many obstacles on the ground. The regime recently issued an order saying that anyone who wishes to visit the Irrawaddy delta must obtain official permission from the army (ka ka kyee).
Some Burmese aid workers and activists maintain the junta has not made any concessions, but the UN has made concessions to the regime.
"Now people are putting the blame on the UN and the regime," one NGO worker told The Irrawaddy on condition of anonymity.
"Nargis is now a cash cow for the regime and UN agencies (to raise money)," she said.
Burmese officials said US $11 billion is needed to rebuild communities in the affected area. The figure was met with strong skepticism.
At the donor pledging conference in Rangoon on Saturday, donor countries pledged around $50 million, far short of the $200 million requested by the UN. Some Western donors said there is a will to provide more money, but the regime must allow access as well as transparency and accountability.
One NGO worker said she believed the junta is appearing to cooperate in order to get more countries to pledge funds. "There are many people ready to come and donate if allowed," she said. "Buy is the aid reaching the people? We have meeting after meeting at the Traders Hotel (in Rangoon) but nothing happens."
She said all aid workers should be welcomed no matter if Western or Asian. "We shouldn't think that Westerners can do more and have more understanding."
"We now have some emergency cowboys who went to the delta region, but they have no clue how to help people and just keep praising their projects and asking for more money," she said, referring to some Western UN staff members.
A Burmese man in his early 40s who has worked for an international NGO in Rangoon for the past week said they should be given more access to the delta, and they should work more closely with local groups.
International NGOs that have operated in Burma for many years have established networks, better understanding and good relationships with local civil society groups, he said, but he claimed, “The UN doesn't engage with locals."
There is also a fear among some Burmese that UN officials in Burma may work with the regime's business cronies, who have been placed under economic sanctions by the US and some EU countries.
The regime is said to have recently offered contracts to Tay Za, the CEO of HtooTrading Company, Tun Myint Naing, a.k.a Steven Law, the director of Asia World, ZawZaw, the CEO of Max Myanmar and others to reconstruct schools, hospitals and government buildings in the affected area.
Debbie Storhard of Alternative-Asean said the UN should not work with the regime's cronies and apologists.
"We know that the regime has no transparency,” she said. "We know that the world wants to help. However, lowering the bar of accountability and ethics will be confirming to the regime that ill treating people is good for business.
Upon returning from the delta, one aid worker said, "This has become a man-made disaster. Nargis is cash cow, and Than Shwe has won again. He and his cronies are going to be richer. I think the UN fell into the regime’s trap."
After watching Ban Ki-moon's visit to Naypyidaw, some Burma observers in Rangoon said the UN chief had been manipulated by the regime, in a manner similar to that of UN Special Envoy Ibrahim Gambari.
The Irrawaddy News
Burma’s military government has been forcibly evicting tens of thousands of refugees who lost family members, houses and property during Cyclone Nargis, which struck Burma on May 2-3.
Most of the evictions have occurred in temporary shelters in Rangoon and Irrawaddy divisions.
Authorities closed down several temporary camps in Rangoon on May 23, including a camps in Shwe Pauk Kan in North Okkalapa Township where 3,000 refugees were staying in temporary blue tents; tent camp No 16 Quarter of North Dagon Myo Thit at the junction of the township Peace and Development Council PDC office and Nat Sin Road bus-stop; and a camp at State High School No 2 of Dala Township.
"They closed the Shwe Pauk Kan refugee camp during the evening,” said a resident of No 16 Quarter at Shwe Pauk Kan. “They forced the people to return to their homes and gave them 10 pyis of rice and 7,000 kyats (US $6.5) to each refugee. The authorities took the tents." A pyi is close to 0.25 liter.
The Rangoon Division PDC issued an order that all refugee camps in Rangoon division be closed prior to May 24, said one source, who asked to remain anonymous.
"They also shut down the camp in Dagon North No 16 Quarter by this order,” he said. “The authorities are also planning to shut down small temporary shelters in schools and monasteries."
Authorities reportedly told refugees at No 2 State High School in Dala Township they had to leave because the school would reopen June 2.
"I went there to donate some snacks to children, and they were not there anymore,” said a volunteer donor. “The neighbors said they were forcibly evicted.”
Local authorities at Dala Township reportedly told refugees the emergency has now ended, and refugees must return to their villages where they should wait for assistance from the government.
Refugee sources said the Padan Camp in Hlaing Thar Yar Township, a site visited by Srn-Gen Than Shwe, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and other diplomats, would be closed in the near future.
"There are about 10,000 refugees in the camp at inner Padan village. I have heard the camp will be demolished soon," said a refugee from inner Padan village, living at State Middle School No 7 in Hlaing Thar Yar Township.
He said refugees haven't received enough food and are still waiting for outside contributions of rice.
"A family is provided with two sacks of rice, two tins of cooking oil and a set of pots and pans. However, they are told not to touch the rice, oil and cooking utensils. It is for show when the authorities come and visit the site. We have to wait for other contributions for our daily food."
A refugee in his 30s said most people had no where to go when they were evicted.
"It is impossible to go back to inner Padan village, since the land owner would not hire us to work the land,” he said. “The land is close to the river and the flood hasn't drained yet since the cyclone hit. Water is still 2 to 3-feet deep in our village."
Sources in the Irrawaddy delta said thousands of refugees from Phyapon, Myaung Mya, Bogalay and Laputta townships also have been evicted from shelters.
"There were 45 camps in Pyapon Township previously but now only three remain, said a source familiar with the relief effort.
Starting on May 21, refugees were told they should wait in their villages for the government's reconstruction plan and were provided with small portions of rice and 10,000 kyats ($ 8).
The remaining refugees at Myaung Mya camps lack sufficient food and water, the source said. .
"Most of the refugees are sheltering at the No 933 Rice Mill compound, and there are almost 3,000 refugees,” said a resident of Myaung Mya. “These people are waiting daily for outside donors to give them rice. This camp will be closed soon."
The camp at No 16 High School in Myaung Mya has been closed and authorities sent the refugees back to their villages in Laputta by trucks and boats.
"It is inhumane and cruel, forcing the refugees to leave without proper assistance, just saying the relief period has ended and promising reconstruction efforts,” said one relief worker. “It is like sending people to their death."
Wednesday, 28 May 2008
27 May 2008 - About 70 vehicles were impounded on Sunday when they returned from the Irrawaddy Delta after donating relief material to cyclone victims.
The police force led by Police Maj. U Luu Win seized the cars at the entrance of Panhlaing Bridge on their way back to Rangoon. The exercise was on the whole of Sunday evening.
"There were about 50 cars lined up on the bridge. The cars were seized at about 8 p.m. yesterday. There were about 22 cars in the Government Technical College (GTC) campus. The car owners were summoned to the police department but their cars have not yet been returned," the in-charge of NLD Youth Information Department said.
The police said that the cars were seized for flouting the law. All these cars need to take permission from local authorities of the Township Peace and Development Council (PDC) of Dallah, Twante, Kunchankong, Kawhmu and Dadeye for making trips for donation to the cyclone victims. The police said that they had already announced on May 8 for donors not to throw relief supplies to cyclone victims lining the highway. This would weaken the victims and not allow them to be back on their feet.
"The authorities said that donating to victims is not a problem, but throwing the relief material on the road created a lot of problems. It would have a negative impact and jeopardize the government's relief efforts, they said. The victims are now objecting to the government's plan to house them in government relief centres, the authorities complained," Ko Zarganar (Tweezers), the renowned comedian into relief operations said.
The impounded cars are being kept in the GTC campus and car owners have been told to come back today. The policemen who are seizing the cars are from Kyaikkasan Interrogation Centre, U Kyaw Thu, actor and a leader of free funeral service, said.
"Many said that the cars were impounded by both the police and the army from Kyaikkasan Interrogation Centre. Last night about 100 cars were detained. Private donors with two Toyota Hilux pickups were arrested last night. But the donors were released late at night and but the cars are in police custody," U Kyaw Thu said.
"Impounding vehicles of Burmese people who are helping their fellow Burmese is not done Today they warned us and made a fuss about traffic rules and checked our cars to see if the lamps and indicators are working," he said.
The authorities have continued restrictions and arrests by stopping many cars going to the Delta in Dadeye and Maubin checkposts. Private donors had to leave their cars with a person to guard it and the goods. They had to come back from these check posts, Daw Myint Myint Mu, a member of 'Human Rights Defender and Promoters Network (HRDP) said.
The riot police was deployed today at the entrance of Panhlaing Bridge.
Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Tuesday (27 May) that some foreign aid workers have gone into Myanmar's cyclone-ravaged delta without problems, reflecting a "new spirit of cooperation" by the ruling junta.
Ban flew to Myanmar last week and received promises from the country's ruling generals to allow international relief workers and international aid into the Irrawaddy Delta by helicopters, trucks and boats. Since the devastating cyclone early this month, all but a few international workers had been barred from the hardest-hit delta, the country's all-important rice bowl.
"The Myanmar government appears to be moving toward the right direction, to implement these accords," Ban told reporters a day after returning to New York. "Some international aid workers and NGOs have already gone into the regions of the Irrawaddy Delta, without any problem. I hope — and I believe — that this marks a new spirit of cooperation between Myanmar and the international community."
But the secretary-general stressed that more needs to be done, and full implementation of the agreement he reached with Myanmar's military ruler, Senior Gen. Than Shwe, "will be the key."
"I will be fully, continuously and personally engaged," he said. "I look forward to returning, before too long, to see for myself the progress we have made."
U.N. humanitarian chief John Holmes told reporters earlier that a significant number of visas are now being granted to international aid workers to help cyclone survivors.
The United Nations hasn't seen "any blockages yet" in the granting of visas, he said, adding "it's a much freer position than it was a week ago."
When he left New York in mid-May to go to Myanmar, Holmes said about 40 visas had been granted to international relief workers but now "I think we're well over double that, and that number's increasing regularly."
"Clearly, the critical question is how may people have we not reached and what sort of condition are they in. Unfortunately, we cannot give a very clear answer to that," he said.
Holmes said the U.N. believes that just over 1 million of the 2.4 million people severely affected by the cyclone have received some kind of aid from U.N. agencies, national and international NGOs or the Myanmar Red Cross.
What the U.N. doesn't have a clear picture of is how many people have been helped through the national relief effort and bilateral assistance given directly to Myanmar, he said.
"It's reasonable to assume you should add several hundred thousand more — maybe even a million more," but there could be a big overlap with the people in the U.N. estimate, he said.
In Geneva, Elisabeth Byrs, a spokeswoman for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs which Holmes heads, said most assistance has gone to people living in the Yangon area, because the delta has hundreds of rivers and small islands, some which can only be reached by inflatable boats.
Cyclone Nargis killed at least 78,000 people and left 56,000 more missing.
Holmes said now the international community has to deliver on the ground.
Since the crisis began, 160 flights have arrived with aid, at a rate of 10-15 a day, but more relief goods are needed which should be coming by road from Thailand and by boat as well. In addition, the U.N. World Food Program is buying rice on the local market.
The French warship Mistral Wednesday landed on the resort island of Phuket, Thailand, to unload some 1,000 tons of humanitarian supplies for shipment by the United Nations to Myanmar.
The regime has forbidden direct aid by warships of France, the United States and Great Britain which have been standing by off the Myanmar coast to deliver the assistance.
Myanmar's state media has voiced fears of a U.S. invasion to grab the country's oil reserves.
Logistical hubs have been set up at five of the main townships slightly north of the worst affected area in the Irrawaddy Delta where relief goods can be kept in warehouses for distribution by small and large boats, Holmes said.
As for the financial side of the relief effort, Holmes said the U.N. financial tracking service reports that $133 million has already been contributed in one way or another, and a further $100 million pledged. (ABC News)
Donors detained after aid distribution (on Sunday 25 May)
They are among hundreds of cyclone survivors in this town forced to endure daily rains beneath tattered thatch huts and use whatever water they can find _ a recipe for disease in Myanmar's low-lying delta as the monsoon season nears.
"Shelter is the most important thing we need," Myint Hlaing said. "There are more and more mosquitoes here. We are afraid of getting dengue fever."
The country's ruling junta has insisted that health conditions are normal in the Irrawaddy delta pounded more than three weeks ago by the killer storm. But relief group Church World Service has reported finding elderly and child survivors dying from dysentery in some areas because many have no choice but to drink dirty water. Other organizations have detected a number of ailments including pneumonia, malaria, cholera and diarrhea.
Save the Children UK has warned that some 30,000 children in the delta were severely malnourished before Cyclone Nargis struck, with thousands facing starvation in the next two or three weeks. The monsoon season, which begins next month, adds yet another challenge.
"The rain is a real problem," Eric Stover, lead author of a critical report published last year about Myanmar's broken health system, told The Associated Press after visiting the delta. "The water is rising up, and the latrines are just outside (flowing) into the water, and there's livestock around. That's the perfect breeding ground for diarrhea and cholera."
Stover, a professor from the school of public health at the University of California, Berkeley, managed to slip past military checkpoints twice to get a glimpse of the devastation. He was unable to assess the health situation in villages, but said conditions are ripe for outbreaks.
"It's as bad as we all think it is, there's no question about that," he said. "I think for public health people and for U.N. personnel the frustrating thing is that they can't see it."
UNICEF has been canvassing the area and has reported a growing number of diarrhea cases _ up to 30 percent of young children in one township. Myanmar's Ministry of Health has started vaccinating some children in camps against measles, another big threat.
The World Health Organization says it still doesn't have a clear medical picture because tight government restrictions have kept the delta off-limits to its foreign experts. Remote villages accessed only by boat remain the biggest question mark because many still have not been reached more than three weeks after the storm.
"We have no hard numbers," said Maureen Birmingham, a WHO epidemiologist in Thailand. "We continue to remain concerned because it's a high-risk situation for diarrheal disease, malaria and dengue."
Myanmar's xenophobic government has worked hard to keep foreign aid agencies from visiting the delta since the May 2-3 storm belted the region, killing some 78,000 people and leaving 56,000 others missing. It has not reported any disease outbreaks.
The regime has said it is able to handle relief efforts on its own, but its ruling general assured visiting U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon last week that all international aid agencies would be allowed in to help. It remained unclear Monday how many foreigners would be permitted to travel beyond Yangon, the country's largest city.
Access to regular supplies of safe drinking water and proper sanitation is essential for preventing waterborne diseases like cholera, which spreads rapidly through water contaminated with feces. Malaria and dengue fever outbreaks also will be a major concern in the coming weeks after mosquitoes have time to breed in the stagnant water that flooded the delta.
Myanmar was plagued by malaria, tuberculosis, AIDS and other big killers before the disaster, in a country where one in three children is estimated to be malnourished. About 3 percent of the annual budget is spent on health, compared to 40 percent on the military, according to Stover's report.
In 2000, the WHO ranked Myanmar's health system as the world's second-worst, ahead only of war-ravaged Sierra Leone.
Associated Press medical writer Margie Mason contributed to this report from Bangkok, Thailand. Washington Post
But the fisherman, 54, did remember that a village leader affiliated with the ruling junta told him and his neighbors a few days earlier that he had already marked ballots for them and sent them to the regional authorities.
“He said he made the right choice for us,” the fisherman said with a shrug. “So we said, ‘O.K., no objection.’ ” The fisherman’s name was not used because of the possibility of retaliation by the government.
In Yangon, more than 60 miles northeast of his delta village, an official at a government-run company said the 1,000 or so workers there had not voted either: the company marked ballots for them as well.
“This was my first chance to exercise my right to vote, but the government did it for us without our knowledge,” said the official, in his late 30s. “None of our staff dared say that we wanted to vote ourselves. This is standard in Myanmar.”
The same thing happened at the military-run company where his wife works, he said.
At least 135,000 people are dead or missing since a cyclone struck Myanmar, formerly Burma, on May 3, in the world’s biggest natural disaster since the Asian tsunami in 2004. For the junta that runs the country, however, politics has consistently trumped aid, local residents said and some government officials acknowledged.
On Tuesday, officials allowed foreign aid workers to travel to the hardest-hit areas of the Irrawaddy Delta for the first time. But the numbers reaching devastated coastal communities were still tiny — fewer than 20 by some estimates — suggesting that the government was still determined to keep an iron grip on the provision of aid.
The United Nations estimates that 1.5 million people who survived the cyclone are still struggling to find food and clean water and that the death toll could rise sharply unless supplies reach them soon. But the Burmese government claims that it can handle relief work by itself and that foreign nations should instead provide billions of dollars to help the junta rebuild the country later.
Over the weekend, military leaders pressed ahead with the vote on the new Constitution, which would prolong their rule by, among other things, allotting 25 percent of parliamentary seats to the military.
Saturday’s referendum in Yangon, Myanmar’s main city, and the Irrawaddy Delta, the regions most affected by the cyclone, took place after two weeks of delay. The rest of the country voted May 10, as scheduled, just a week after the storm. Even before the final round of balloting, state radio said that round could not reverse the Constitution’s approval because 92.48 percent of the 22 million eligible voters had already voted for it on May 10. In any case, The New Light of Myanmar, the state-run newspaper, reported Tuesday that voters in Yangon and the Irrawaddy Delta had affirmed the Constitution by an even more resounding 92.93 percent.
Critics said the referendum as a whole was a sham.
In the days before the Saturday referendum in Yangon, homeless cyclone victims taking shelter in schools and other public buildings were evicted to make room for polling places. In four delta villages visited Saturday, villagers gave the same answer: The government had voted for them; they did not even get to see the ballots.
“We are not interested in voting; we are starving for food,” said a villager at Zee Phyu Chaung, a delta hamlet where those interviewed were aware that Saturday was referendum day. “Our village leader voted for us two days in advance, and we don’t know how he voted.”
Such stories did not surprise the Yangon government official, who compared living in Myanmar to “living in a prison with a very big border.”
The man spoke in English during an interview arranged on the condition that his name and personal details not be disclosed for fear of government retribution for criticizing the junta to outside journalists.
Interviews with Burmese farmers and fishermen in the Irrawaddy Delta and with businessmen and officials revealed the frustration and quiet perseverance of people in this poor and politically repressive country.
The official and several businessmen in Yangon said the government’s attitude toward its people was best illustrated by the discrepancy between its swift and harsh reaction to a popular uprising led by Buddhist monks last September and its foot-dragging in aiding victims of Cyclone Nargis.
“You saw what happened in 1988 and last September,” the official said, referring to the junta’s bloody crackdowns on pro-democracy demonstrators. “In other countries, if you stand up against the government, you may get tear gas. Here you get the bullet. I have a wife and a child to support. I can’t risk my life.”
When asked about his future, the official pulled on his cigarette and mentioned what other young, relatively well-educated Burmese call “voting by foot.”
“If you can’t fight it, if you can’t reform it, it leaves you with just one option: leaving this country and going abroad to find a decent job and give your child a better future,” he said.
That is not easy. As is the case with other officials, his passport is held by the government. If he wants to travel abroad, he must apply to have his passport returned, a process that he said takes two months, assuming it is successful, and requires a fair amount of bribes. “Otherwise, all government officials would emigrate,” he said. “We Burmese are born oppressed.”
The signs of that oppression are pervasive, even in the Internet cafes of Yangon, where young people in crowded rooms play computer games and exchange news and photos of the cyclone’s victims with friends overseas.
Employees are deft at helping customers bypass government firewalls to visit foreign Web sites. When a user logs out, the computer usually shows a notice reminding him to erase all his Internet download history, a bizarre snippet of life in a society where one Yangon businessman said “fear is a dominant motivator in everyday life.”
"Donors may go right down to storm-hit areas of their choice," the official New Light of Myanmar proclaimed in a headline splashed across its front page.
"Everybody may make donations freely. Everybody may make donations to any person or any area," the government mouthpiece said.
"However, well-wishers are urged to avoid unsystematic donations and acts that may tarnish the image of the nation and its people," it added.
Authorities are prepared to help donors distribute their goods, the newspaper said, citing an order issued Tuesday by the regime's disaster management committee.
The order contradicted efforts by local officials to stem the flow of private donors, who have driven from Yangon and other towns to deliver aid to storm victims in the hardest-hit parts of the Irrawaddy Delta.
Cyclone Nargis left more than 133,000 people dead or missing when it struck on May 2-3, with 2.4 million people in desperate need of food, shelter and medicine.
The United Nations says only about one million of them have received any international aid, but unknown numbers have been relying on private assistance from individual volunteers.
Thousands of people have lined the roads in the delta, hoping for handouts from passing cars.
Police in some areas have tried to shoo away the storm survivors, threatening to confiscate drivers' licenses of volunteers giving away food and clothing.
The announcement was the latest shift in official media, which in recent days have become more welcoming of aid from volunteers as well as UN agencies.
The newspaper on Tuesday also highlighted the work of the UN Development Program and the World Food Program, as well as charities like Doctors Without Borders.
For three weeks after the storm, official media had insisted that the military could handle all aid on its own.
But the regime has taken a softer tone since the visit by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and a donor conference last weekend, which raised tens of millions of dollars in cyclone aid.
YANGON (Reuters) - Western governments lashed out at the extension of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi's house arrest, but the outrage at Myanmar's military rulers was tempered by concern over disrupting aid flows to desperate cyclone victims.
The former Burma has been promised millions of dollars in Western aid after Cyclone Nargis, but this cut no ice with the generals regarding the opposition leader, who has been under house arrest or in prison for nearly 13 of the last 18 years.
Officials drove to Suu Kyi's lakeside Yangon home on Tuesday to read out an extension order in person, but it was unclear whether the extension was for six months or a year.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who just returned to New York from a weeklong aid mission in Myanmar, expressed disappointment but refrained from sharp criticism.
"The sooner restrictions on Aung San Suu Kyi and other political figures are lifted, the sooner Myanmar will be able to move toward ... restoration of democracy and full respect for human rights," he said.
He added that his special envoy for Myanmar, Ibrahim Gambari, would raise the issue of Suu Kyi with the junta.
Western nations were more forthright.
U.S. President George W. Bush said he was "deeply troubled" by the extension and called for the more than 1,000 political prisoners in Myanmar to be freed. However, the State Department said it would not affect U.S. cyclone aid.
The 62-year-old Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) won a 1990 poll by a landslide only to be denied power by the military, which has ruled the impoverished country for 46 years.
EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner said "a historic opportunity was missed to give a sign of reconciling political life in Myanmar at a time when national and social cohesion, and solidarity and dialogue are more needed than ever."
Few had expected Suu Kyi to be released, but the extension was a reminder of the ruling military's refusal to make any concessions on the domestic political front despite its grudging acceptance of foreign help after the May 2 cyclone.
Hours before the extension, police arrested 20 NLD members trying to march to Suu Kyi's home.
Three weeks after the cyclone's 120 mph (190 kph) winds and sea surge devastated the delta, the United Nations said it had raised roughly 60 percent of its initial $200 million target for aid for Myanmar and aid workers were getting more access.
"We've reached just over a million people with some kind of aid," U.N. humanitarian affairs chief John Holmes told reporters.
Junta supremo Senior General Than Shwe promised U.N. chief Ban last week that he would allow all legitimate foreign aid workers access to victims across the country.
Holmes said he did not know if all roadblocks had been removed, but the situation was better.
"There's still a lot of people out there who have received nothing or certainly not enough," he said.
In the delta, thousands of beggars line the roads, and droves of children shout "Just throw something!" at passing vehicles.
Witnesses say many villages have received no outside help, and the waterways of the former Burma's "rice bowl" remain littered with bloated and rotting animal carcasses and corpses.
Much of the blame for the aid delay rests with the junta, which has been reluctant to admit a large-scale international relief effort for fear that would loosen the grip on power the army has held since a 1962 coup.
Nonetheless, diplomats and aid agencies see some signs of a shift in the stance of the reclusive junta.
State-controlled media on Tuesday praised U.N. agencies for taking prompt action to provide relief supplies after the cyclone, which left 134,000 people dead or missing.
(Additional reporting by Louis Charbonneau at the United Nations; Writing by Ed Davies; Editing by Darren Schuettler and Alex Richardson)
For two days, a granddaughter, 14-year-old Mah Myint Myint Kyi, could not speak. All her immediate family died: Her parents and her 7-year-old twin brothers.
The eldest granddaughter of Then Khin, Daw Thit Khine, 31, who lost her husband and both her children, is haunted by the memory of her 2-year-old daughter. The child, Thwe Tar, clung to her mother's neck until the storm snatched her.
In all, Then Khin, 70, said, she lost 15 members of her family on May 3 when Cyclone Nargis swept through this village in an isolated and hard-hit part of the Irrawaddy delta.
Her losses and those of this village have been bad enough. No better has been the mere effort to survive. On a weekend when a French ship full of relief supplies was turned away by Myanmar's military dictatorship, no aid from international agencies had reached here. Very little had come from the government itself, which claims it needs no help to feed and heal, only billions of dollars to reconstruct.
"I don't expect anything from the government — I never have, and I don't now," Then Khin said. "I heard on the radio about foreign help on its way, but I haven't seen any in the past 20 days. It's the same as before, nothing changed."
As this remote area struggles to cope in the storm's aftermath, the only government help Then Khin received was a small packet of rice, which she won by the luck of the draw.
The village authorities came only once, with some rice, blankets and other relief from the central government. The supplies were distributed by lottery, because there was so little. And the rice packet was not enough for even one meal for the 20 surviving family members who now crowd her hut.
The village of That Kyar lies near Pyapon, a major delta trading town.
Unlike the cyclone victims who live near roads and receive help from private donors bringing supplies from the cities, the people in villages like That Kyar have mostly been left to fend for themselves.
Times of India
Junta Renews Suu Kyi's House Arrest Moscow Times 21:23
UN has raised 60% of targeted Burma aid Ninemsn - World 21:22
Foreign aid workers enter Myanmar's cyclone-hit delta Channel NewsAsia - AsiaPacific 21:21
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Myanmar Aid Now Reaching Irrawaddy Delta NPR - All things Considered 21:11
Myanmar Aid NewsRoom 21:05
Ban hopes to return to Burma soon The Daily Telegraph, Australia 21:01
Ban decries continued detention of opposition leader Suu Kyi Monsters and Critics - General-News 20:59
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Women asked to send panties to Burma embassy CTV.ca 20:31
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