Thursday, 29 May 2008

Myanmar lashes out at foreign aid offers

By Aung Hla Tun

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."


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)

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