YANGON (AFP) - Rajagopal, one of many volunteers in Myanmar bringing food to cyclone victims, said he was shocked by the desperation of the survivors in the Irrawaddy delta, where he saw corpses still hanging in trees.
But even more appalling, he said, was that local officials demanded that he and his friends pay cash bribes to win permission to bring food into the devastated southern region.
"The survivors are in a dire situation," he said, "and we had to pay bribes to get aid goods into the area."
"It is terrible what this government is doing," Rajagopal added, as he offered prayers at Yangon's Shwedagon Pagoda for the 133,000 dead or missing.
He was among about 10,000 Buddhists at the pagoda Monday to observe a normally joyous holiday commemorating the birth, enlightenment and passing of Buddha.
This year, the mood at the pagoda was grim, with residents in Yangon still coming to grips with the tragedy that has left 2.4 million people in desperate need of help, more than two weeks after the storm.
The government has declared three days of official mourning, a rare public acknowledgement of the grief hanging over the nation.
"People are sad. Look at their faces. They are all worried about what's in store in the future," Rajagopal said.
He lost a niece when the storm pounded Yangon, knocking over a tree that killed the girl inside her home.
But he said the suffering in the city paled in comparison to the grisly scenes that still fill the Irrawaddy delta.
"I returned from there three days ago. I saw bodies up on the tree branches," he said.
"We have to help them. This government is not helping," he added.
Myanmar's military regime agreed Monday to allow its neighbours in Southeast Asia to coordinate an international relief effort, but so far shows no sign of relenting in its refusal to allow in foreign aid workers needed to oversee the disaster response.
Many private donors from Yangon and other cities have taken matters into their own hands, delivering food and clothing to victims in the delta, where roadblocks dot the highways in a bid to keep out foreigners.
Other devotees at Shwedagon had stories like Rajagopal's, telling of corrupt local officials trying to profit off the tragedy.
"My friend wanted to give rice to victims in the delta. But the authorities manning the roadblocks demanded money before allowing him to deliver the food," said Zin Khin, a 25-year-old volunteer at the pagoda.
"Myanmar people are angry with the regime's attitude. But there is nothing much we can do," he said.
"We can't take to the streets. They are afraid. This government has killed people before to stay in power. They will not hesitate to kill to remain in power," he said.
Last September, Buddhist monks led marches of more than 100,000 people through the streets of Yangon. It was the biggest protest against military rule in nearly two decades, and the military was unyielding in its reaction.
Security forces shot and beat protesters in the streets, including revered Buddhist monks.
After the crackdown, many monks fled the city. Shwedagon, the country's holiest shrine, was surrounded with barbed wire and closed to the public for days.
Many devotees are still reluctant to return to the pagoda. Zin Khin said only half the normal number of people turned up for the holiday this year.
They slowly circled the golden spires, splashing water at statues of Buddha and at the banyan trees that shade them. Laying flowers, bananas and coconuts as offering to the temple, they recited mantras that also carried prayers for the dead.
"I hope those who died will be reborn with lots of happiness and wealth," Zin Khin said. "For the survivors, I hope aid comes to them quickly." (AFP)