Thursday, 17 July 2008

The Irrawaddy Delta Redux

The Irrawaddy News

I’ve just returned from Laputta in the Irrawaddy delta, where the situation is appalling and vastly different than government accounts.

I visited Kaing Thaung, Kanyin Kone, Ywe and Pyin Salu villages, where I witnessed a lot of forced labor incidents in the name of "reconstruction."

I was told the soldiers said, "We’re here for your village reconstruction. You must cooperate with us." Some villagers are even beaten during their forced labor conscription.

There are also numerous cases of refugees who remain at Three-Mile, Five-Mile and Yatana Dipa refugee camps being conscripted for forced labor. The authorities say these remaining camps will be closed on August 5.

I haven’t been that impressed with what the UN is doing. I think many UN workers are just here for dollars. Perhaps, they don’t release the real news of conditions here because they fear the government’s reaction. They are on the ground, they know the situation, but I think they turn a blind eye because they don’t want their projects stopped.

The UN workers live in good house, renting for around 1.5 million kyats (US $ 1271) per month. It’s my belief that if they had good hearts, they could reduce these high expenses and give more to the refugees.

Thanks to regular rain fall, the refugees appear to have enough safe water. If they don't get rain water, there could be more outbreaks of infectious diseases. In terms of medical care, there are still a lot of villages that need medical services.

The villagers I talked with complained about the hardships they experience. They hope I can do something for their relief, but I can't do anything except write a report or a news story. I realize that what I write may get to the international communities, but then what?

Refugees told me that when they were ordered to leave Pha Yar Gyi and other temporary camps in Laputta, soldiers from Light Infantry Division (LID) 66 entered the camps with batons and guns and forced the refugees into trucks, like driving a herd of cattle.

The UN staff knows about the forced relocation of the refugees, but they don’t issue any press releases about it.

Refugees have many stories of abuse by Burmese military and civil officials in charge of the camps. They tell stories of drunken camp officials swearing at refugees: “You are lazy people living on rice donations! You are beggars! Go back home."

Some refugee families couldn't bear it and talked back to the authorities. They would beat and drive them from the camp. It is happening in all three camps. Refugees are also told to inform volunteer donors who come to the camps that they don’t need anything. Some savvy donors wait and talk for several minutes and then they understand the real story.

From my talks with Laputta residents, I also question the assessment by the Tripartite Core Group (TCG)—a body formed in cooperation with Asean, the UN and the Burmese junta. The teams collected data in the Irrawaddy delta.

The local authorities I talked with said some young people came around and asked questions about the situation in the surrounding villages. They claimed they were not well informed on the current situation there, but they offered to send them to the villages. The teams, however, seemed to have limited time and left the town with the data they gathered from the administrators in the town.

I also made inquires about the government providing mechanical tillers and paddy seeds to farmers and boats and fishing nets to villagers. Villagers I spoke with said some villages received the assistance, but the tillers were old and the authorities provided only 2 gallons of diesel for plowing an acre. The old machines break down and consume 4 or 5 gallons to plow one acre of land.

They said three out of five of the tillers were in workable condition, and if a farmer wanted to use the machine, they had to bribe the village head with 200,000 kyat ($ 169.5)

The rice seeds the authorities provided are low quality, called Hnan-Kar, also known as Ma-Naw Thu-Kha. Some farmers said they sow them but no sprouts appeared. The farmers feel helpless because they don’t have access to the seeds they used before.

I saw some paddy fields with green sprouts, but much of the land in the disaster area has not been planted.

My impression is that the camp administrators, township officials, their relatives and landlords in Laputta are benefiting post-Nargis. The restaurants in town are crowded most of the time.

I returned from this trip feeling great sympathy and sorrow for the cyclone victims. I wish the relief effort could be more effective. The people are still suffering.

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