Tuesday, 13 May 2008

Why Myanmar's junta steals foreign aid

By Brian McCartan

CHIANG MAI, Thailand - Myanmar's generals may have more than self-promoting propaganda in mind by commandeering aid provided by international donors and insisting that the military deliver it without the assistance and expertise of foreign disaster relief personnel. The junta's control of aid and food stocks may rather be a hedge to remain in power.

The junta's insistence on holding a constitutional referendum at the preset date on Saturday, despite the widespread destruction caused by Cyclone Nargis, demonstrated clearly its determination to hold onto power at all costs. The regime only postponed the election in 47 townships affected by the cyclone in Yangon and Irrawaddy Divisions.

The referendum was labeled a sham by rights groups, Myanmar's political opposition and several foreign governments. The seemingly overwhelming "Yes" vote the constitution received was widely predicted after months of government intimidation. Fears of vote rigging were largely borne out by widespread reports from opposition political and media organizations.

Yet the generals apparently have a different agenda in their handling and distribution of international aid, which has been widely criticized for not allowing foreign aid workers to assist with distribution. While the first priority was clearly solidifying their rule through the referendum, they are also haunted by an almost pathological fear of a split inside their own ranks. During the popular demonstrations in September last year there were numerous reports of dissent within the rank and file, especially when it came to shooting monks who were in the forefront of the demonstrations.

The generals will likely have come to the same conclusions as many outside observers: their rice bowl has been badly damaged in the Irrawaddy Delta region and will likely not recover quickly. This is going to put a severe strain on existing rice stocks at a time the purchase of foreign rice has become increasingly expensive due to surging global commodity prices.

From the junta's perspective, the group that needs to be fed first is the 400,000 strong military, rather than the desperate civilian survivors of the crisis. With their respective family members, the military's associated numbers could be as high as 2 million, according to one Western military source. To the generals, the people now gathering in makeshift camps can be controlled, but only if the military remains united. An army without food or with starving families, especially in an army where most of the soldiers were forcibly recruited, is much more likely to revolt.

Lack of food is a perennial problem in Myanmar's army. In a report released on May 9 by Karen Human Rights Group (KHRG), based on interviews with army deserters, the group said, "Threats, physical abuse and under nourishment are rife in the [Myanmar] army." While the soldiers interviewed by KHRG were serving at the frontline were food is often scarce, foreign residents in Myanmar have also commented on the malnourished look of soldiers in urban areas like Yangon and Mandalay.

In the 1990s, orders were issued to the army to be self-sufficient and live off the land. According to numerous reports by human rights groups like KHRG, Human Rights Foundation of Monland, Shan Human Rights Foundation and international groups like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, this policy has resulted in looting, extortion, forced labor and the forced confiscation of land for military farms.

These abuses have been noted in particular in the insurgency-plagued border areas, as well as in the relatively more peaceful central areas of the country - including the Irrawaddy Delta. These methods have kept the soldiers fed, at least at a basic subsistence level. Falling morale, however, is a problem in the military and the leaked documents of several high-level military meetings noted rising desertion levels and discontent in the ranks before the cyclone hit.

Some of this, according to deserters, is due to insufficient rations for themselves and their families. While a pressing problem, it had not become so severe that whole units were deserting or revolting. Now, with severe food shortages looming through the damage wrought by Cyclone Nargis, if soldiers are not given priority in aid distribution and are unable to feed themselves, the possibility of mutiny rises.

Death to the military

Cyclone Nargis did not only kill civilians, destroy homes and wipe out crops; it also took its toll on the military. The navy was particularly hard hit by the cyclone and the ensuing tidal wave. According to a senior opposition military officer, many navy ships were sunk and several hundred sailors were killed in the storm. The naval station on Hainggyi Island, the headquarters of the Pamawaddy Regional Command, was particularly hard hit. The Irrawaddy magazine, citing Myanmar naval sources, reported that up to 25 vessels were destroyed and 280 officers and sailors had gone missing.

The navy was not the only service to suffer. The Irrawaddy Delta is the operational area of the Southwest Regional Command, headquartered at Bathein. The command comprises 13 battalions spread out in camps throughout the region, including Pyapon and Mawlamyinegyun, both areas hard hit by the cyclone. The Southwest Command is also a politically important post.

Previous commanders of the post include Senior General Saw Maung, leader of the 1988 palace coup that installed the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), which was renamed the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) in 1997, as well as current junta leader Senior General Than Shwe and General Thura Shwe Mann, the current number three in the SPDC, joint commander-in-chief of the military and widely tipped to be a possible successor to Than Shwe.

From 1949 to the early 1970s, the Irrawaddy Delta was a battleground between the army and insurgents of the Karen National Union (KNU) and the Burmese Communist Party. Although both groups were pushed out of the area in the early 1970s, the army remained. In 1991, during what was called the "Bogalay Crisis", the KNU sent fighters and arms to the delta for an abortive insurrection. Although quickly crushed, the army expanded its presence through various camps situated in the region.

According to military opposition sources and residents, it can be safely assumed that many of these camps would also have been wiped out by the recent storm. Military bases and camps of the Yangon and Western Commands, responsible for Yangon Division and Arakan State respectively, would also likely have been affected.

No estimates of military casualties are available, but the toll on the soldiers could be on a par with civilian casualties in the area. Many soldiers and their family members in the Irrawaddy Delta and Yangon would likely have lost family members, or currently are struggling to get food and other necessities.

For the generals, this is where the importance of international aid comes in. With rice crops and storage facilities destroyed, bases wiped out, already discontented soldiers running out of food and with many of their family members dead, injured or unable to feed or fend for themselves, the military leadership needs to move quickly to preserve their hold over the rank and file and thus their hold on political power.

Several witnesses claim that aid supplies given by the generals, with certain military leaders' names painted on the packages, are only a propaganda exercise. They say that once the video cameras are turned off, the soldiers pack up the remaining undistributed aid and take it away. In one state-television broadcast, labels with the names of army generals were shown pasted over aid packages clearly saying "Aid from the Kingdom of Thailand".

The World Food Program temporarily halted aid flights on Friday after the military seized two food shipments, but resumed them the next day saying the scale of the humanitarian crisis necessitated sending the aid even if they could not control its distribution. More aid is now arriving in Myanmar, but relief officials say it is only a trickle and much more will be needed to avoid a wider humanitarian disaster.

Official government statistics now stand at 28,458 dead and 33,416 people missing. According to figures presented by the United Nations Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, based on their own assessments, an estimated 1,215,885 to 1,919,485 people have been adversely affected by the cyclone. They also estimate there are anywhere between 63,290 to 101,682 dead and 220,000 missing.

Yet the junta continues to hamper aid efforts by denying visas to humanitarian relief specialists, many of whom are now stranded in neighboring Bangkok. The military regime has consistently said it wants the relief supplies, but not the aid workers. It especially does not want aid workers who may control the distribution of relief supplies, precisely because that would keep the military from monopolizing the dispersal of the aid and prevent it from channeling it to its own members.

These numbers will likely rise as fuller assessments are made and many survivors succumb to disease, deprivation and starvation. Of particular concern to relief agencies is the threat of diseases such as cholera, malaria, typhus and dysentery brought on by the lack of proper shelter and sanitation and with drinking water contaminated by the dead.

Residents of Yangon and the Irrawaddy Delta say that the local population is increasingly outraged by the junta's lack of assistance and its hoarding of aid. To the junta's top generals, far away in their bunkers in their secluded new capital at Naypyidaw, the aid distribution policy is apparently political survival at all costs. But as it becomes more apparent to the wider suffering population that the junta is only looking after its own that policy could stoke more unrest than it avoids.

Brian McCartan is a freelance journalist based in Chiang Mai, Thailand. He can be reached at brianpm@comcast.net.


Cholera outbreak in Laputta relief centre

Maung Dee
Mizzima News

In the aftermath of the Cyclone Nargis in Burma, there is apprehension of the health situation of people deteriorating severely. There are at least 10 cholera patients in each relief centre in Laputta, it is learnt.

Lack of potable water and crowded relief centres will exacerbate the current situation in all 32 relief centres in Laputta Town.

"There is an outbreak of cholera. It is taking an epidemic form as over 2,000 victims have to share limited toilets in the relief centres. This situation will worsen," a doctor from Laputta providing medical attention to storm victims said.

There are over 80,000 survivors in Laputta which is close to the sea and almost half the area was devastated in the storm. The survivors had to take shelter in 32 relief centers opened in pagodas, monasteries, schools, and mosques with 2000 to 3,000 survivors taking shelter in each relief camp.

"We have to eat gruel everyday, sleep on uncovered cold concrete floors with open roofs which were ripped apart and swept away in the storm. When it rains, we have to sit on the floor and cannot sleep," the doctor added.

The doctors in Laputta pooled in their resources and formed the 'Voluntary Doctors Association' to provide medical care to the storm victims in the town. They distributed re-hydration packets, and in a free medical clinic are conducting prevention of cholera outbreak.

Though a NLD party worker said that four had died of cholera, Mizzima could not verify this news from independent sources.

Local residents are complaining that about 80,000 survivors haven't yet received any relief supplies from the local authority except receiving cash, drinking water, medicine, rice and cooking oil donated by Burmese in Singapore.

The local authority kept all the relief supplies at the relief operation warehouse, without distributing it to the survivors. They also they seized all the supplies donated by well-wishers. The material included rice, cooking oil, salt, instant noodles and drinking water. So over 10 trucks carrying these supplies stopped in the outskirts of the town to wait and see the attitude of the authorities, a doctor from Laputta said.

The Burmese Medical Professionals Association formed by Burmese doctors in exile in a statement appealed to the junta to let in international aid workers and use their expertise along with the relief supplies since the SPDC is not in a position to provide efficient and speedy relief operation to storm victims.

"It is not a good thing not to allow international aid workers and distributing the relief supplies to the storm victims by themselves. They are not in position to handle a disaster of this scale. They must accept trained and experienced aid workers and the facilities to handle such a disaster in this scale as they have none of these facilities," Dr. Raymond Tint Way from Australia said.

Distributing only a blanket, a tin of rice (about 1.5 Kg) cannot alleviate the sufferings and sorrows of the orphans, widows who lost entire families in the devastating storm. The state-run media should stop the propaganda footages of distribution of meal packets to the storm victims by the PM and should start effective relief operation immediately, he added.

"The people are dying and suffering from de-hydration as time. They have no food, are dying of diarrhea, typhoid and malaria. It is very difficult to tackle such a big disaster. The junta needs international assistance so we humbly appeal to the government to allow these international aid workers in and use their expertise as soon as possible," Dr. Raymond Tint Way further said.

The Burmese Medical Professionals Association appealed to the UN and the international community to conduct humanitarian intervention by ignoring the restrictions imposed by the junta to save hapless storm victims who are dying in Burma day by day.

Monks Help Cyclone Victims Despite Military Pressure

Burmese monks remove a tree blown down by the cyclone. (Photo: AP)
The Irrawaddy News

The saffron-robed monks who spearheaded an uprising last fall against Burma's military rulers are back on the front lines, this time providing food, shelter and spiritual solace to cyclone victims.

The military regime has moved to curb the Buddhist clerics' efforts, even as it fails to deliver adequate aid itself. Authorities have given some monasteries deadlines to clear out refugees, many of whom have no homes to return to, monks and survivors say.

"There is no aid. We haven't seen anyone from the government," said U Pinyatale, the 45-year-old abbot of the Kyi Bui Kha monastery, where almost depleted rice stocks and precious rainwater are shared with some 100 homeless villagers huddled within its battered compound.

Similar scenes are being repeated in other areas of the Irrawaddy delta and Rangoon, the country's largest city, where monasteries became safe havens after Cyclone Nargis struck on May 3—and the regime did little.

Monks and homeless villagers gather at the monastery of Kyi Bui Kha village, in Pyapon, a town in Burma’s Irrawaddy delta, a week after cyclone Nagris slammed into the low-lying region and Rangoon. (Photo: AP)

"In the past I used to give donations to the monks. But now it's the other way around. It's the monks helping us," said Aung Khaw, a 38-year-old construction worker who took his wife and young daughter to a monastery in the Rangoon suburb of Hlaingtharyar after the roof of his flimsy house was blown away and its bamboo walls collapsed.

One of the monastery's senior monks said he tried to argue with military officials who ordered the more than 100 refugees to leave.

"I don't know where they will go. But that was the order," he said, asking for anonymity for fear of reprisals.

The government has not announced such an order, which appeared to be applied selectively. Other monasteries in Rangoon have been told to clear out cyclone victims in coming days, the monk said, but in the delta, refugees were being allowed to remain or told they could come to monasteries for supplies but not shelter.

"They don't want too many people gathering in small towns," said Hla Khay, a delta boat operator. The regime "is concerned about security. With lots of frustrated people together, there may be another uprising."

Larger monasteries were being closely watched by troops and plainclothes security men—"invisible spies," as one monk called them.

Such diversion of manpower at a time when some 1.5 million people are at risk from disease and starvation reflects the regime's fear of a replay of last September, when monks led pro-democracy demonstrations that were brutally suppressed, with troops firing on and killing protestors.

Monks were also shot, beaten and imprisoned, igniting anger among ordinary citizens in this devoutly Buddhist country. An unknown number remain behind bars, and others have yet to return to their monasteries after fleeing for fear of arrest. At least 30 people are reported to have been killed although pro-democracy groups say the death toll was much higher.

"I think after the September protests, the government is afraid that if people live with the monks in the monasteries, the monks might persuade them to participate in demonstrations again," said a dentist in Rangoon, who also asked that his name not be used for fear of reprisals.

Newspapers have been ordered not to publish stories about monks aiding the people, and at least one monastery and one nunnery in Rangoon were prohibited from accepting any supplies from relief organizations.

"The government is very controlling," said U Pinyatale, the abbot at the Kyi Bui Kha monastery. "Those who want to give directly to the victims get into trouble. They have to give to the government or do it secretly. [The military] follows international aid trucks everywhere. They don't want others to take credit."

It appears unlikely that foreign aid organizations seeking to enter Burma will be allowed to use monks as conduits for relief supplies as many had hoped.

"One of the best networks already in place in the country are the monks," said Gary Walker of PLAN, a British-based international children's group, speaking in Bangkok. "So we'll be exploring ways in which we can see whether the monks can start distributing supplies throughout the country."

At the Kyi Bui Kha monastery, located on the banks of the Pyapon River deep in the delta, U Pinyatale glanced anxiously at the remaining 10 bags of rice.

"At most, we have enough for the week. We will have to find a way to get more food," he said as monks and villagers worked together to try to dry the sodden rice, even as rain clouds gathered above the largely roofless monastery.

In Rangoon, monks have been able to go out on their traditional morning rounds to accept food donations from the faithful and then share these with refugees at their monasteries. But in devastated areas of the delta that is not an option.

About 90 of the 120 houses in Kyi Bui Kha have been totally destroyed. Gaps in the monastery's storm-riddled wooden walls revealed a 360-degree view of ravaged rice fields.

U Pinyatale said the sanctuary's two dozen monks and nuns were also trying to offer spiritual comfort to the traumatized villagers.

"We pray with them. We pray for the dead to go to the peaceful land of the dead and for the living to rebuild their lives," he said.

"When the cyclone came, all of us hid in the rice warehouse. I saw one person holding tightly onto a tree but he did not make it," the abbot added. "After the storm, there were dead bodies floating everywhere. Some people get nightmares. Some hear voices at night that their dead children are calling for help. Some haven't spoken since."

Regime Seals Off the Irrawaddy Delta to Foreigners

Survivors of the cyclone Nargis are seen in Laputta, in the Irrawaddy delta of southern Burma. (Photo: AFP)

Burma’s reclusive military government is keeping most foreign aid workers away from the devastated Irrawaddy delta.

Local staff for international relief agencies are stretched to breaking point and facing tighter restrictions on their ability to deliver the trickle of foreign aid flowing in to 1.5 million survivors facing hunger and disease.

Medicins Sans Frontieres (MSF) said its first cargo plane loaded with medical supplies landed in the cyclone-hit former capital, Rangoon, on Monday but it was facing "increasing constraints" imposed on its staff in the delta.

Damage from the cyclone Nargis are seen in Laputta. (Photo: AFP)"In Bogalay, for instance, the MSF team is unable to provide as much assistance as they could to respond to the enormous needs in terms of food and medical care," the aid group said of one devastated township where at least 10,000 people were killed.

Tens of thousands of people throughout the delta are crammed into monasteries, schools and other buildings after arriving in towns that were on the breadline even before the disaster.

Lacking food, water and sanitation, they face the threat of killer diseases such as cholera. Heavy rain was forecast for the delta this week, threatening more misery for survivors.

One Rangoon businessman just back from a personal aid mission to Bogalay said the army was appropriating aid. "There are still some villages in the worst-hit areas that nobody has got to," the man, in his late 30s, told Reuters.

"Around Bogalay, private donors are not allowed to distribute their assistance to the victims themselves. We had to hand over what we had."

The junta has welcomed "aid from any nation" but has made it very clear it does not want outsiders distributing it in the areas worst hit by Cyclone Nargis, which struck 11 days ago.

Speaking after the first US military aid flight to Burma on Monday, US President George W Bush condemned the junta for failing to act more quickly to accept international help, saying "either they are isolated or callous."

The US C-130 military transport plane flew in from an air base in neighboring Thailand carrying water, mosquito nets and blankets, but US officials aboard the aircraft were not allowed beyond Rangoon airport.

A stream of other aid flights have already landed in Rangoon, but only a fraction of the help is getting to where it is needed.

The World Food Programme said it was able to deliver less than 20 percent of the 375 tonnes of food a day it wanted to move into the flooded delta.

At the United Nations in New York, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon delivered his most critical comments so far.

"I want to register my deep concern—and immense frustration—at the unacceptably slow response to this grave humanitarian crisis," he told reporters.

The UN said its top representative in Burma had flown to Naypyidaw, the generals' new capital, on Monday to hand over a list of 60 critical UN and relief agency staff. More than 30 visas had since been promised, the UN said.

In its latest assessment, its humanitarian agency said between 1.2 million and 1.9 million people were struggling to survive and the number of dead ranged from 60,000 to 102,000.

Burma's state television raised its official toll on Monday to 31,938 dead and 29,770 missing. Most of the casualties were killed by the 12-foot (3.5 meter) wall of water that hit the delta, with the cyclone's 190 kph (120 mph) winds.

The cyclone raged through an area that is home to nearly half of the country's 53 million people, as well as its main rice-growing region. About 5,000 sq km (1,930 sq miles) of land remain under water.

France was sending a warship carrying 1,500 tonnes of rice which was expected near Burma later this week. Paris says it wants to distribute the food directly itself, but will not do so without authorization.

The US will also have three ships near Burma this week, and Britain was sending a navy ship to the region to help humanitarian operations.

The Irrawaddy News

40 per cent of Burma dead are children: aid group

At least 40 per cent of those killed in Burma's cyclone were children and hundreds more have lost their parents, a leading charity said today, as the UN warned young victims now face further trauma.

Part of the reason for the cyclone's devastating toll on young people is simple demographics, with 40 per cent of Burma's population younger than 18, according to Save the Children spokesman Dan Collinson.

But children are also the least able to survive powerful winds and towering tidal waves sparked by Cyclone Nargis, Collinson said.

"To be honest it's highly likely to be more than 40 per cent, because children are less likely to withstand these kinds of storm surges," Collinson told AFP.

"Children are that much more vulnerable."

Survivors of the cyclone, which left at least 62,000 dead or missing, have told AFP horrific stories of clinging to tree branches as the storm surge swept away their villages, sending waves crashing over the tops of trees.

Parents saw their children ripped from their arms by the powerful currents. Among the children who survived, hundreds have been separated from their parents or become orphans, Collinson said.

"We've heard reports of 300 children living in a camp that have been separated" from their parents, said Kathryn Rowe, also of Save the Children.

"So they may have extended families there but they have been separated from their parents."

In the hardest-hit regions of the Irrawaddy delta, hungry and barefoot children dressed in rags have been left begging on roadsides.

AFP reporters have seen children trying to catch fish and crabs in muddy canals, surrounded by the bloated corpses of the dead.

Many anguished parents there told AFP that they have nothing but coconuts and bananas to feed their children. With no substantial meals, young survivors are beginning to weaken and fall ill.

The United Nations estimates that one fifth of children living in the disaster zone are now suffering from diarrhoea. Without access to clean drinking water, diarrhoea can prove lethal in emergencies such as this.

Thousands of children have found shelter in temporary relief camps with access to only scant supplies of rice and just a few toilets between them.

In addition to the displacement caused by the storm, the latest UN report on the crisis said officials had received reports of entire families being forcibly moved from their villages to other parts of the country unaffected by the cyclone.

The UN children's fund UNICEF says 3,000 schools were wiped out by the cyclone, leaving 500,000 children without classrooms as holidays are set to end early next month.

The agency said it was working to create makeshift schools in relief camps, in the hope of giving children a semblance of normal life.

"In any situation where you have children living under extremely stressful conditions, both physically and emotionally, it is important that they are provided with a space where they feel safe and provided for," said Ramesh Shrestha, UNICEF representative in Myanmar.

In just one township in the delta, UNICEF said it is trying to identify the parents of 24 children sheltering with strangers.

Now the greatest risk to children is infectious diseases such as cholera, diarrhoea, dysentery, dengue fever and malaria caused by flooding and a lack of clean water, the agency said.

Source: AFP-SBS

'Dubai Cares' team back after Myanmar job

A 'Dubai Cares' Operations team has returned from Myanmar after successfully delivering over 60 tonnes of relief supplies, including 200 multi-purpose tents, teaching materials and countless school supplies for the victims of Cyclone Nargis.

Equipped with facilities and relief materials to offer immediate solace to the children, the temporary structures will serve as schools and child protection centres, complementing the on-ground efforts of other NGOs.

The delivery operation follows the directive of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, UAE vice-president and prime minister and Dubai ruler. The humanitarian aid will address the children’s long-term need to recover from the crisis, restore normalcy and rebuild their lives.

Dubai Cares is the world’s largest charitable establishment solely devoted to improving primary education for underprivileged children.

Its initiative in Myanmar stems from its philosophy that guaranteeing the continuity of children’s education is as important as ensuring their physical well being.

Reem Al Hashimy, chairperson of the Dubai Cares board of directors, said: “Our objective was to offer immediate aid to ensure that the children could be placed on the path of recovery helping them begin their rehabilitation process following the trauma suffered from the devastating cyclone.”

The Dubai Cares delegation was received by government officials at the Yangon International Airport, and provided crucial assistance in unloading the 60-tonne shipment aboard the Boeing-747 cargo plane.

“As per reports from my team on the ground the country’s only unloading vehicle could not reach the airplane’s cargo bay, so they worked hand in hand with more than 200 Burmese volunteers to implement the arduous task of physically unloading the shipment. The entire operation took over six hours.'

Cyclone Nargis slammed into coastal towns and villages in the rice-growing delta on May 3, leaving over one million people homeless, and a further 24 million stranded with no access to electricity and water. The official death toll currently stands at 22,000, with figures expected to reach the 200,000-mark.

TradeArabia News Service

Media work in "spy state" Myanmar proves challenging

Yangon (TopNews) - They allegedly can be recognized by their sophisticated cellphones.

Myanmar, a country ruled by the military for the past 46 years, is a spy state. Government agents lurk in every corner, and also in the hotels of the country's largest city and main port, Yangon, formerly known as Rangoon, where now many foreign journalists have gathered in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis.

Reporters who attract too much attention are immediately taken to the airport and deported. Myanmar's rulers have little regard for the concept of a free press.

Journalists making their way into the disaster area, which is closed off to foreigners, must anticipate considerable trouble. However, a few have managed to get in.

Myanmar's citizens only can dream of unrestricted Internet access or web blogs, and foreign journalists have to recognise how difficult it is to conduct research in a country without modern communications technology.

To "google" some information on a whim simply is impossible. Wikipedia's entry on opposition leader and Nobel Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who is still under house arrest, is blocked just like the CNN homepage, for example.

To take out a satellite phone or even a notebook raises suspicion. Webmail pages from providers like Yahoo or AOL also are blocked.

Local news media are not a reliable source to find out what really is going on in the country as they're controlled by the state.

The state-run daily newspaper New Light of Myanmar - reminiscent of the party organ New Germany in former East Germany - only reports on a daily basis that the country is fully capable of dealing with the disaster.

A recent caricature depicted Cyclone Nargis and "saboteurs from within and abroad" as dark, shadowy figures.

The main headline last weekend was that junta leader General Than Shwe and his wife had dutifully cast their votes for the referendum on the new constitution.

This week, the newspaper published out-of-focus, black and white photos of junta members supervising the distribution of relief goods to survivors of the disaster.

How far the spying really goes is difficult to estimate, but journalists trade advice to research only very discreetly in order not to endanger local informants among the civilian population.

If they're observed talking to foreigners they run the risk of being interrogated by government agents.

Taxi drivers often open up to inquiries if they're alone in the car with a foreign journalist, and then start lambasting the government.

They express their admiration for Suu Kyi, who they simply refer to as "the lady."

The non-governmental organization Reporters Without Borders lists Myanmar as one of the most dangerous countries for journalists.

During last year's monk-led protests 15 local journalists were arrested because they dared to stray off the official standpoint in their reporting.

One of them was arrested under suspicion of having given an interview to the dissident radio station Democratic Voice of Burma.

Japanese press photographer Kenji Nagai was shot dead while filming the demonstrations in Yangon last September.

But some journalists apparently experience runaway imaginations upon realising that they've ended up in an absurd, total surveillance state.

A CNN reporter advised his crew to follow him with shaky camera while he was racing down a dark staircase because he believed he was being pursued by some obscure individuals.

He had to move to a new hotel virtually every day, he claimed.

Another reporter breathlessly said into the camera he had under greatest danger fought his way into the disaster area, which he had eventually reached "with only two chocolate bars in [his] pockets." (dpa)

Myanmar rejects US, UN pressure on aid

YANGON (AFP) — Myanmar's military rulers on Tuesday rejected growing international pressure to accept aid workers, insisting against all the evidence that it had the emergency cyclone relief effort under control.

Even as US President George W. Bush and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon voiced their fury at the country's generals, and aid agencies again warned that time was running out, the regime remained defiant about letting in outsiders.

"The nation does not need skilled relief workers yet," Vice Admiral Soe Thein said in the New Light of Myanmar newspaper, a mouthpiece for the military which has ruled the nation with an iron grip for nearly half a century.

He said the needs of the people following the storm, which has left around 62,000 dead or missing since ripping through the southern Irrawaddy delta on May 2, "have been fulfilled to an extent".

But aid agencies tell a starkly different story, warning that as every day passes without sufficient food, water and shelter, as many as two million people are at risk of adding to the already staggering death toll.

Just hours after the United States sent its first aid plane into the country since the tragedy -- following days of negotiations -- Bush said the world should "be angry and condemn" the junta.

"Either they are isolated or callous," he said. "There's no telling how many people have lost their lives as a result of the slow response."

The United States has long been one of the most vocal critics of the regime, repeatedly tightening sanctions on Myanmar over its refusal to shift towards democracy or release opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest.

But Ban Ki-Moon also took aim at the junta, using unusually strong language for a UN chief to insist that outside aid experts be allowed in immediately to help direct the fumbling relief effort.

"I want to register my deep concern and immense frustration on the unacceptably slow response to this grave humanitarian crisis," Ban told a news conference at UN headquarters in New York.

"We are at a critical point. Unless more aid gets into the country very quickly, we face an outbreak of infectious diseases that could dwarf today's current crisis," he said.

"I therefore call in the most strenuous terms on the government of Myanmar to put its people's lives first. It must do all it can to prevent this disaster from becoming even more serious."

Myanmar's military regime is also forcing cyclone survivors out forcing cyclone survivors out of their devastated villages and into other parts of the country, the United Nations said.

The country has welcomed donations of aid, even from the United States, which sent in its first planeload of supplies on Monday and said that two more military transporters would follow Tuesday.

But the generals remain deeply suspicious of the outside world and fearful of any outside influence which could weaken their control on every aspect of life in this poor and isolated nation, formerly known as Burma.

Aid groups insist that only specialists with long experience of disaster zones can ensure that the neediest get the aid they need -- and navigate that aid through scenes of almost total destruction.

Eleven days after the disaster struck, thousands of hungry people, including many children , are still lining the roads on the route between the main city Yangon and the low-lying delta that bore the brunt of Cyclone Nargis, begging for food and water.

The storm churned up huge waves that turned the delta rice paddies into a saltwater swamp, and drowned untold numbers of people and animals -- many of whose corpses are still rotting in the tropical heat.

Weakened by hunger, thirst, fatigue and the sheer psychological trauma of their ordeal, survivors face an enormous range of threats -- from dysentery and pneumonia to wind-burn and deadly snake bites.

Myanmar is struggling to feed its people in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis -- in part because the regime has been forcing some farmers to stop growing rice in a plan to produce biofuel instead.

The United Nations said Monday that the current relief effort was running at about 10-20 percent of what was needed, and that although aid flights are arriving, there are serious bottlenecks in getting supplies to the delta.

With access cut off to the south for most outsiders, the full extent of the death and destruction may not be known for months. The United Nations and United States have estimated the number of dead at around 100,000.

In an internal document seen Tuesday, the United Nations said it was receiving reports of the military forcibly pushing families out of their villages and into less-affected areas.


Burma state media ignore tragedy

SURVIVORS and aid workers emerge from Burma's devastated Irrawaddy delta with stories of families wiped out, bodies floating in rice paddies and starving cyclone victims begging by the roadside.
But none of that is making it into the tightly controlled state media.

Instead, it is generals in medal-covered uniforms handing out food packets, and soldiers clearing trees from the roads, who are the stars of the show.

As the world vents its fury at the junta's slow response to Cyclone Nargis, headlines declaring "Navy takes part in reconstruction'' and "Commander presents relief aid to storm victims'' appear in the New Light of Myanmar newspaper.

"The state media must not report anything bad,'' said Aung Naing Oo, a Burma analyst based in Thailand.

''(It is) a country with a totalitarian regime churning out propaganda.''

State television channel MRTV today beamed out images of grinning generals in their olive-green uniforms vigorously shaking hands with visiting US officials, welcoming a US military plane laden with relief goods.

But the scenes of storm victims being ushered by the military into neat rows of emergency tents, while happily sucking on bottles of mineral water, belie an increasingly desperate situation on the ground.

Official figures state that 62,000 people are dead or missing, but the United Nations has warned that tens of thousands more could die unless vital food, water and medicine reaches up to two million people.

The junta has delayed giving visas to foreign aid workers, and its sluggish response has provoked outrage from foreign governments, with Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd attacking the regime as "absolutely callous''.

None of this has made the news in Burma, a country called a "paradise for censors'' by media freedom watchdog Reporters Without Borders.

All in-country publications are controlled by the military or subject to massive censorship, and most people do not have access to international news outlets.


Myanmar's generals are ruled by paranoia


To the outside world, the reaction of Myanmar's military regime to last week's devastating cyclone seems not just obscene, but inexplicable. Instead of rushing to help its desperate people, the regime of General Than Shwe all but shut off the country from foreign assistance while pushing ahead with a referendum on a new constitution. But to those who know the regime, its reaction is perfectly in character.

Myanmar's government is among the most xenophobic in the world, deeply distrustful of outsiders and all they represent.

So the idea of letting foreign-aid workers and even foreign soldiers into the country, if only to deliver aid, fills its leaders with dread.

"They believe that the countries of the outside world are eager to defeat them and take over their country," said Josef Silverstein, a Myanmar watcher and retired professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey.

The regime's xenophobia has it roots as far back as 1824, the beginning of clashes with colonial Britain that would end with Myanmar (then Burma) being incorporated into British India in 1886. "They are still living in the 1820s," said Prof. Silverstein of today's military and its world view.

There was a brief democratic flowering after the Second World War when Burma, then one of the richest and most promising countries in Southeast Asia, looked outward. But the country turned inward again in 1962 when the army seized power, expelled most foreigners, cut trade ties with other countries and embarked on the "Burmese way to Socialism," a strict form of self-reliance that has kept Myanmar in a hermetically sealed capsule ever since.

The regime's fear of the outside world has deepened as the outside world, outraged at the years-long detention of democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi and last year's bloody suppression of a monk-led uprising, has stepped up its criticism of, and sanctions against, the military government.

So the idea that foreign aircraft might start shuttling into their airspace and foreign warships arriving in their ports makes the regime's leaders nervous, even if the effect might be to save hundreds of thousands of lives.

"If a military regime sees military planes, it wonders if it's being invaded," said Bridget Welsh, a Myanmar specialist at Johns Hopkins University. "They can't recognize that some interventions are good."

Than Shwe, 75, leader of the regime since 1992, has spent his career steeped in the paranoia and isolationism of the military culture.

In that culture, the military is seen as the only force that can keep the country together, safe from the twin threats of chronic ethnic unrest and foreign hostility.

After joining in the military's fight against ethnic insurgents in the late 1940s and early 1950s, he rose steadily through the ranks under Ne Win, the country's long-time military chief.

He has overseen at least three purges of other military officers apparently considered a threat to his rule.

"He is deeply suspicious not just of people outside but of people within his own military system," Prof. Welsh said. Used to supreme power, "He doesn't listen, he tells."

Prof. Silverstein and other experts say that Gen. Than and his colleagues in the military elite are poorly educated, not well travelled and ill-informed about the outside world.

They send their children to elite schools and often live apart from the general population, even moving their capital from Rangoon to the isolated redoubt of Naypyidaw, or "Abode of the kings," in 2005.

Accustomed to unquestioned control, they bridled at the thought that foreign governments and humanitarian organizations might deliver aid independently.

"Traditionally, they try to benefit from every crisis," said Zaw Kyaw, a Toronto activist and observer of Myanmar politics. "They want to take all the credit for handing out the aid."

There is another reason for the regime's hostile reaction to foreign offers of help. The cyclone happened to come just days before the planned constitutional referendum.

It seems extraordinary to the outside world that the government would push ahead with the referendum in most of the country in the midst of a national catastrophe, filling the state-controlled airwaves with get-out-and-vote messages instead of disaster news.

But the vote was of paramount importance to the regime. Though viewed by democracy advocates, and much of the world, as a sham designed merely to perpetuate the regime in power, the vote was seen by the military as a necessary step to shore up its legitimacy, tattered since last fall's violence.

Myanmar has been without a constitution since the last major uprising in 1988, and the military has been working for more than two years on a new document that would give it a quarter of the seats in parliament and ensure that the presidency stays with a man in uniform.

Whether the cyclone disaster will upset the regime's well-laid plans or loosen its power is unclear. The Mexican government's faltering response to the 1985 earthquake in Mexico City is thought to have helped bring on the downfall of Mexico's ruling party after decades in power. Similarly, in Nicaragua, Anastasio Somoza lost his grip on power when he was accused of stealing aid money after a quake in 1972, giving a boost to the rebel Sandinistas. Then there was the 2004 Asian tsunami. Rebels and government reached a peace accord in Indonesia's troubled Aceh province after the disaster brought hostile sides together.

But with 500,000 men under arms and 40 per cent of the country's budget flowing into its coffers, the Myanmar military is thought to be in unchallenged control at the moment.

The only good news is that there appear to be some cracks in the regime over whether to accept foreign aid.

After days of refusing, the regime finally allowed a U.S. military plane with relief supplies to land yesterday, an extraordinary concession from the government that, especially since the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, sees the United States as a major threat.

Though there are no signs of it so far, it is possible that lower-ranking officers might try to break with the elderly elite in the military. Most observers think that if change arrives, it is more likely to come from within the regime itself rather than from a popular revolt.

"People are just fighting for daily survival," Mr. Kyaw said.

World wrestles with Burma aid issue

By Jonathan Marcus
Diplomatic Correspondent, BBC News

The scale of the suffering prompted by the cyclone in Burma is huge.

Only a massive outside relief effort can help the authorities there to cope with the catastrophe.

But Burma's isolated military regime has been dragging its feet in accepting offers of aid - something that has frustrated non-governmental organisations and many other governments alike.

Their frustration has been exemplified by the French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner - himself a veteran humanitarian activist - who proposed the idea that there should be a UN resolution compelling Burma to accept outside aid.

Such a move was strongly opposed by Russia and China, who are uneasy about the implications of such a step, which they see as intruding into Burma's internal affairs.

Mr Kouchner's call was based upon an idea that has gained some ground in international affairs during the past decade.

This is the notion that the international community has a right, indeed a duty, to intervene in another country's affairs, if it is not upholding its responsibilities to its own citizens.

The doctrine, first championed by the Canadians and recognised by the United Nations in 2005, is known as "the responsibility to protect".

Applying the doctrine

It was strongly influenced by the experience in the Balkans, and Nato's military intervention to expel Serbian forces from Kosovo in 1999.

The Serbian authorities, it was argued, were conducting genocidal attacks against a part of their own population.

Taking military action, though, is one thing - forcing a country to accept a vast humanitarian aid effort quite another.

Ed Luck, a special adviser to the UN Secretary General, has argued that linking the "responsibility to protect" to the situation in Burma is a misapplication of the doctrine.

The World Summit in 2005, he says, saw this responsibility being applied in four very specific cases - genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and ethnic cleansing.

The US and France still seem to be hinting at the possibility of some kind of forced delivery of aid if all else fails, and the Burmese government continues to refuse to grant humanitarian access.

But quite apart from the political implications of such a step, there would be huge practical problems, too.

Such an approach might have to rely upon air-drops of food and emergency supplies to the flood-hit areas.

Without proper co-ordination on the ground this might be a gesture, at best.

Diplomatic pressure

There can be no substitute for a vast, co-ordinated operation on the ground.

Inevitably, then, the focus remains on applying diplomatic pressure to encourage Burma's rulers to relax their constraints.

Britain is pursuing urgent efforts with both the Burmese authorities, and countries with close ties to the military regime there - like China, India and Thailand - to try to deal with the central problem slowing the aid effort to the cyclone-stricken region: access.

Britain's ambassador in Rangoon, Mark Canning, in a telephone briefing, said that some aid workers were being allowed into the country, but not on a scale that was either large enough or fast enough.

He said that governments with close ties to the Burmese authorities had a very important role to play in trying to convince them to allow a major international aid effort to get under way.

Burma experts, though, stress the scale of the problem.

This, they say, is an inward-looking regime, where every effort has been made to limit access to the country from outside.

The British ambassador's message to the Burmese authorities was clear - steps had to be taken to get the badly-needed experts in as quickly as possible.

Burmese Officials Skimming Cyclone Aid

The Irrawaddy News

Burmese military officers and village heads are stealing relief supplies in many areas following Cyclone Nargis, according to Rangoon sources.

Sardines, clothe, high energy biscuits and other relief aid sent to the survivors of the cyclone are being sold at markets, shops and even teashops, said a cyclone survivor..

Burmese line up to receive free rice on the outskirts of Rangoon on Monday. (Photo: AP)
Meanwhile, in Kawhmu, southwest of Rangoon Division, cyclone victims still have not received any relief aid. A Kawhmu resident, now in Rangoon, told the The Irrawaddy that “local officers and our villager headman only distributed about 30 percent of the aid to the people, and they kept 70 percent.”

Such reports underscore the importance of the dispute over the past week between the military regime and international relief agencies, who say they must have their own staff on the ground to oversea aid distribution. However, the junta is still saying it will not let foreign aid workers into Burma and will handle aid distribution itself.

According to a Rangoon-based journalist, citizens are not allowed to deliver aid supplies themselves and must give their donations to members of the Union Solidarity and Development Association or local firefighters.

People who collect the relief supplies are using the items and eating food that is meant for survivors,” he said.

Rangoon children line up to receive rice after Cyclone Nargis.
(Photo: AP)
A Rangoon resident said, “The donations from the authorities are just for propaganda and to show off. The authorities took relief supplies back with them after they shot video in Hlaing Tharyar and Shwe Pyi Thar townships.

A local World Vision office in Thanlyin Township in Rangoon asked for permission from local authorities to hand out rice, and was told to donate 10 bags of rice to the authorities to be able to give rice to the people, said a staff member of World Vision.

Meanwhile, the authorities have allowed some wealthy citizens and movie stars to pass out aid, but prevented some private citizens for political reasons.

One example, Kyaw Thu, a movie star and well-known supporter of the demonstrations led by monks in September of last year, was harassed by thugs carrying knives and clubs when he tried to distribute rice to people in Thanlyin Thowship in Rangoon.

Kyaw Thu is also chairman of a social welfare association, the Free Funeral Services Society, which helps people who can not afford funerals for their family members.

Read also
DVB's: Aid for cyclone victims sold in Rangoon

Humanitarian Intervention Calls Increase

The Irrawaddy News

As the Burmese junta continues to block foreign experts from entering the country to help cyclone relief work there, calls for outside humanitarian intervention grow louder.

“It is time for humanitarian intervention,” said Burma’s opposition National League for Democracy (NLD).
“The government has failed to take the responsibility to help and save its own citizens,” said NLD spokesman Nyan Win.

Ethnic leaders agreed. Lian Sakhong, general secretary of the Ethnic Nationalities Council, told The Irrawaddy on Monday that humanitarian intervention was urgently needed.

Lian Sakhong, who lives in exile, said he was shocked by the scale of the devastation and was particularly concerned about the health risks posed by outbreaks of cholera, typhoid and diarrhea.

The Seven Alliances of pro-democracy organizations, representing the majority of Burma's ethnic and democracy groups in exile, released a joint statement on May 9 urging the regime to allow all international aid to enter Burma immediately.

The NLD’s spokesman in exile, Nyo Ohn Myint, who once worked with detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, urged the US and the EU to seek agreement in the region for intervene with humanitarian assistance in Burma.

“Burma needs a new hope,” he said. “Burma is not Iraq but the Burmese are waiting (for humanitarian intervention).”

Nyo Ohn Myint asked: “Why has the regime refused to accept international aid agencies? They have the capacity to save our countrymen and women.”

The US says it has three ships standing ready in the Gulf of Thailand, including the USS Essex, which is carrying 1,800 marines, 23 helicopters and five amphibious landing craft.

Although the US government says it needs regime approval before going ahead with the direct delivery of aid, former USAID director Andrew Natsios has called on Washington to launch unilateral airdrops, regardless of the regime’s reaction.

Natsios pointed out that the US has facilitated the delivery of humanitarian aid without the host government's consent in some other countries.

Retired US General William Nash, of the Council on Foreign Relations, said the US should first pressure China to use its influence over the junta to get it to open up and then hand over relief missions to Thailand and Indonesia.

Naing Aung, the secretary general of the Thailand-based Forum for Democracy in Burma, urged the UN and the international community to “carry out high-level negotiations with the regime leaders to persuade them to open up the country and allow international aid and give them unrestricted access.”

If the regime continued to obstruct international assistance, said Naing Aung, “then the world has a responsibility to respond to the life-threatening situation in Burma by invoking the 'Responsibility to Protect' clause, a concept the UN recognized in 2005.”

Aung Naing Oo, a Burmese analyst in exile, said Than Shwe should be held accountable for barring emergency aid. “Than Shwe is the person most responsible for this crime,” he said.

Aung Kyaw Zaw, a former communist party member now living on the Sino-Burma border, pointed out that the regime had 400,000 troops at its disposal to help in relief work but had failed to enlist army assistance.

Aid strategy for cyclone victims

By Michael O'Hanlon

The country of Burma or Myanmar has already lost at least 25,000 of its citizens to a terrible cyclone over a week ago.

Now, with well more than a million people adversely affected by the storm's aftermath, the death toll could rise as much as tenfold if Burma's oppressive government in its paranoia about dealing with the outside world continues restricting access to foreign aid workers.

To address this situation, the Bush administration's admonitions to the Burmese junta about accepting aid are of course correct at one level but unpromising at another. The strongmen who run that country will not be impressed by such appeals to their better angels. Nor will any aid airdrops we conduct even in the absence of permission get the job done on the needed scale. Other countries' efforts will remain similarly inadequate under current circumstances.

We need an immediate U.N. Security Council decision to appoint a coordinator for aid relief. That person should be an Asian, to alleviate Burmese worries as much as possible about purported hidden Western motives to use the aid mission to carry out political subversion (which are of course unwarranted, but that is largely beside the point).

The coordinator would be much more than a logistician. He or she would be charged with upholding a promise to the regime in Burma as part of the U.N. resolution not to use the aid mission to carry out political activities. In the event of any violation of this pledge on the part of the international community, the coordinator would be empowered to ask the offending governments or aid agencies to leave the country immediately.

Of course, this power would likely not be needed. But making it clear that the coordinator had the power could slightly reassure Burmese authorities — or at least help them save face, since they have been objecting to having foreign aid workers on the ground and need an excuse to explain why they are now acceptable.

At a bare minimum, such an offer of creating a coordinator would take away the regime's excuse and make it obvious that any further suffering of its people was entirely its own fault. This is already apparent to us, but not yet to the whole world.

The relevant U.N. resolution would be under what is sometimes called "Chapter 6 and a half" of the U.N. charter. In other words, it would not call for a forcible intervention by the international community without Burma's permission. Such operations are deemed Chapter 7 missions. Rather, this would require and involve the blessing of Burma's junta.

But once the junta assented, the coordinator would then be in a position to pressure Burma to accept all aid needed. He or she would have tactical authority even over local officials, once given the overall strategic guidance that all would accept.

Of course, Burma's government is not right for its country and has no legitimacy in that country. But we must work to reform or replace it under different circumstances. The present humanitarian crisis does not allow us the luxury of using the present moment for fostering political change, however warranted as a general proposition.

If we are not creative, we may look back on these days in May as the period when what has already been a tragedy for Burma turned into an historic catastrophe. We must not allow that to happen.

Michael O'Hanlon is senior fellow at Brookings Institution.
Washington Times

Myanmar Junta Pressed by UN, U.S., India to Take Aid (Update1)

By Paul Tighe and Demian McLean

May 13 (Bloomberg) -- The United Nations, U.S. and India told Myanmar's military rulers to allow international aid to reach the country, where more than 1.5 million people need help after Tropical Cyclone Nargis struck 10 days ago.

The junta must ``put its people's lives first,'' UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said yesterday in New York. The delay is ``another reason why the world ought to be angry and condemn the government,'' President George W. Bush said in an interview with CBS Radio.

As many as 100,000 people may have died in the disaster, according to UN officials. The death toll reached 33,416 people with 29,770 missing, Myanmar's state radio announced late yesterday, according to China's Xinhua News Agency.

Myanmar, a country of 48 million people ruled by the military since 1962, has accepted a fraction of the relief offered by the world. The UN estimates that only a third of the people needing aid have received help as flood waters still cover areas of the southern Irrawaddy delta, the worst-hit region.

The U.S., which has led international calls for the junta to return the country formerly known as Burma to democracy, was allowed to land its first aid flight in Myanmar yesterday.

``It's a drop in a bucket for what they are going to need,'' White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said at a briefing yesterday in Washington.

Relief Flights

The U.S. won permission to land more relief flights in Myanmar and boosted its aid offer fivefold to $16.25 million yesterday after Navy Admiral Timothy Keating, chief of the U.S. Pacific Command, met with Myanmar naval officers.

Keating was on the first U.S. aid flight, said Ky Luu, director of the U.S. Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance in Washington. Myanmar has rejected help from U.S. naval ships in the region.

India, which shares a 1,460-kilometer (907-mile) border with Myanmar, called on the junta to accept more aid when Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee spoke by telephone with his counterpart Nyan Win.

Mukherjee pledged more assistance from India and ``also urged Myanmar to accept international relief supplies to supplement their efforts,'' India's Foreign Ministry said in a statement on its Web site.

Two Indian navy ships and five aircraft have brought medical supplies and equipment, including tents, to Myanmar, the ministry said.

Thai Visit

Thailand's Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej will visit Myanmar tomorrow, Foreign Minister Noppadol Pattama said today in Bangkok. He had planned to visit May 11.

Samak ``will definitely travel to Myanmar tomorrow,'' Pattama said. ``He will help coordinate the aid between international countries and the Myanmar government.''

Myanmar's military leader General Than Shwe has refused, during the past five days, to respond to repeated attempts at telephone contact, Ban said, adding he has sent two letters to the junta head.

``I want to register my deep concern and immense frustration,'' Ban told reporters. ``Unless more aid gets into the country very quickly, we face an outbreak of infectious diseases that could dwarf'' the disaster caused by the cyclone.

The amount of food that has been allowed to enter the country ``is less than a tenth'' of what is needed, Ban said.

UN Emergency Relief Coordinator John Holmes said the junta has approved only 34 of more than 100 visa applications by relief workers.

More Workers

Less than 10 percent of the international workers needed to respond to the disaster are on the ground, the World Food Program said yesterday. About a fifth of the 375 metric tons of food that needs to be delivered each day is reaching cyclone victims, it said.

Myanmar's ``response is not good enough,'' Bush told CBS. ``Here they are with a major catastrophe on their hands and do not allow the full might of a compassionate world to help them.''

International aid supplies are being successfully transported by Myanmar workers to disaster-hit areas, Xinhua cited Myanmar state radio as saying.

``What the people really need now is food and sanitation,'' Joe Lowry, a spokesman for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, said yesterday in the former capital, Yangon. ``You've got lots of people living homeless next to pools of filthy, standing water'' that can cause skin diseases, diarrhea and respiratory infections.

To contact the reporters on this story: Paul Tighe in Sydney at ptighe@bloomberg.net; Demian McLean in Washington at dmclean8@bloomberg.net.

The dangers of reporting Myanmar's cyclone in a country where journalists are not welcome

BANGKOK, Thailand (AP-IHT): "I can't talk now, I think I'm in danger," a reporter in Myanmar whispered into the phone. Click.

Phones are tapped and the few foreign journalists inside Myanmar are operating in secret, making it dangerous and difficult to tell the story of the cyclone that has devastated the Southeast Asian country.

Covering catastrophes always carries risk in impoverished countries where disasters can cause shortages of food, clean water, outbreaks of disease and staggering death tolls. But the challenges are multiplied in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, where the reclusive and notoriously brutal military regime does not want details of the suffering to leak out.

"This government is very paranoid, very xenophobic and they think this cyclone could undermine their credibility," said Aung Zaw, editor of Irrawaddy, a Thailand-based magazine and Web site put out by exiled Myanmar journalists.

"The military regime wants to conceal the extent of the damage. And they don't want the Burmese people telling foreigners the true story."

According to the U.N. the May 3 cyclone may have killed between 62,000 and 100,000, and left up to 2 million survivors facing disease and starvation.

Foreign journalists — like many foreign aid workers — have not been allowed into the country. Local reporters have faced harassment and risk imprisonment for stories that offend the famously thin-skinned ruling generals.

While a reporter in Myanmar was talking to an editor in Bangkok, loud tick-tick-tick sounds could be heard on the telephone line, often an indication of a tapped phone. That day, the reporter had been informed that the government was not pleased by an unflattering detail about the junta in a recent story. The reporter expressed concern about being arrested before abruptly hanging up, a fear that has so far proved unfounded.

Tightly controlled state media paints a one-sided picture of a beneficent junta. The New Light of Myanmar and other government mouthpieces only show images of the junta distributing aid and comforting survivors, making little or no mention of help pouring in from around the world.

Reporters Without Borders and other media watchdogs have urged the junta to lift its ban on journalist visas, noting that news reports and images broadcast around the world play a key role in helping disaster victims and reconstruction efforts.

"Journalists have an important role to play," the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists said in a statement. "Their reporting often uncovers previously undiscovered areas of need, and they help keep the international community of donors informed of conditions on the ground."

At the Myanmar Embassy in neighboring Thailand, several journalists seeking visas were told they were blacklisted after entering Myanmar on tourist visas in September 2007 during the junta's deadly crackdown on pro-democracy protests led by Buddhist monks.

Incriminating images of troops firing on monks broadcast by global news networks enraged the junta and prompted a tightening of the already severe restrictions on media freedoms, the CPJ said in a recent report.

Among those killed in last year's crackdown was Kenji Nagai, 50, a video journalist for Japan's APF News. Video footage of Nagai's death appearing to show a soldier shooting the journalist at close range was televised around the world.

Myanmar's military government said Nagai's death was an accident and that he had not been deliberately targeted.

But commentaries in the state-controlled press implied that he was responsible for his own fate because he came into the country pretending to be a tourist and then put himself in a dangerous situation.

Since the cyclone, a few reporters have managed to get into Myanmar, concealing the satellite phones, battery packs and generators needed to operate in the cyclone-hit areas where electricity is down and there is no cell phone coverage.

But getting into the country is just the first of many hurdles.

Undercover police keep constant watch over hotels popular with journalists in Yangon, the commercial capital, prompting many reporters to constantly change locations to avoid attracting attention.

"Myanmar authorities are now searching hotels outside the capital in search of Westerners. The authorities were going room to room in a number of hotels," the London-based aid group PLAN said in a statement, citing accounts from journalists in the country.

The junta's jitters are rubbing off on international aid organizations, many of which say they are uncomfortable speaking in public to reporters out of fear that associating with media could jeopardize their relief efforts.

Police checkpoints along the roads that link Yangon to the devastated Irrawaddy delta in the south stop cars to ask passengers their identities, passport numbers and reasons for travel.

"This area is restricted. No foreigners," a checkpoint officer told an Associated Press reporter on the outskirts of Labutta, one of the hardest-hit areas in the country.

CNN reporter Dan Rivers hid under a blanket in the back of a van at one checkpoint after sneaking into the country and being informed by a local contact that his TV reports had made him a marked man. Police at one point questioned him and demanded his passport, alarming Rivers who has covered hotspots around the world.

After five days in Myanmar, Rivers returned to his base in Thailand, thinking, "I'd used my nine lives up and it was time to get out of the country."

Leaving is not an option for Myanmar's local journalists, who require exit permits for trips out of the country. A variety of national security laws have been used for years to imprison journalists, political dissidents and other activists.

Last year, Reporters Without Borders ranked Myanmar as the world's sixth worst violator of media freedom, after Eritrea, North Korea, Turkmenistan, Iran, and Cuba.

Despite the hazards, many local journalists have braved the cyclone story. Some rushed to the delta immediately after the disaster and ferried back video footage to international news agencies who couldn't access the area for days. Many asked for nothing in return except an outlet to tell the world what the junta was hiding.

Irrawaddy magazine has five Burmese reporters covering the cyclone, three of whom lost their houses in the storm, Aung Zaw said. Their reports are picked up by U.S.-government funded radio stations Radio Free Asia and Voice of America, which relay them back to listeners in Myanmar.

"They are all undercover. They wouldn't dare tell people they are (journalists)," the editor said. "There is a huge risk."

We don't need your skills: Burma

Aid arrives ... a Burmese soldier and a US airman
work together to unload food packages.
Photo: AP

A US military official says a second flight has left with relief supplies for Burma's cyclone victims, and more flights are expected.

Lt Col Douglas Powell said the Marine C-130 cargo plane left for Burma's main city, Rangoon, today carrying 43,780kg of water, blankets and mosquito nets.

He said a third flight carrying more supplies would leave later today.

Douglas said he expected flights would continue tomorrow. He did not give details.

The first US flight delivered relief material to Burma yesterday after prolonged negotiations with the country's ruling junta.

Burma is deeply suspicious of the West, and considers the United States its enemy. The agreement was to initially send three flights yesterday and today.

Burma's military regime today thanked the United States for the initial plane load of supplies, but said it still was opposed to letting in foreign aid workers to cope with the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis.

Vice-Admiral Soe Thein, quoted in government mouthpiece the New Light of Myanmar newspaper, said the needs of hundreds of thousands of storm survivors "have been fulfilled to an extent".

He said the country was grateful for the shipment from the United States, one of the most vocal critics of the military regime - which US President George W Bush yesterday said was "isolated or callous".

"The donation will enhance friendship between the governments, armed forces and the peoples of the two countries," Soe Thein said.

But he reiterated that Burma, also known as Myanmar, was not open to foreign aid workers - a stance that has provoked the wrath of the international community.

"Relief and rehabilitation tasks call for a lot of relief supplies and funds," he said.

"So far, the nation does not need skilled relief workers yet."

Aid workers warn that far more relief supplies are needed to prevent a humanitarian tragedy in Burma's worst-hit areas, and that the junta is ill-equipped to distribute supplies.

Official media in Burma reports that nearly 32,000 people were killed when the cyclone slammed into the country overnight on May 2.

But the UN has warned the toll could be much much higher, and that up to two million people are in desperate need of aid.
A US military official says a second flight has left with relief supplies for Burma's cyclone victims, and more flights are expected.

Lt Col Douglas Powell said the Marine C-130 cargo plane left for Burma's main city, Rangoon, today carrying 43,780kg of water, blankets and mosquito nets.

He said a third flight carrying more supplies would leave later today.

Douglas said he expected flights would continue tomorrow. He did not give details.

The first US flight delivered relief material to Burma yesterday after prolonged negotiations with the country's ruling junta.

Burma is deeply suspicious of the West, and considers the United States its enemy. The agreement was to initially send three flights yesterday and today.

Burma's military regime today thanked the United States for the initial plane load of supplies, but said it still was opposed to letting in foreign aid workers to cope with the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis.

Vice-Admiral Soe Thein, quoted in government mouthpiece the New Light of Myanmar newspaper, said the needs of hundreds of thousands of storm survivors "have been fulfilled to an extent".

He said the country was grateful for the shipment from the United States, one of the most vocal critics of the military regime - which US President George W Bush yesterday said was "isolated or callous".

"The donation will enhance friendship between the governments, armed forces and the peoples of the two countries," Soe Thein said.

But he reiterated that Burma, also known as Myanmar, was not open to foreign aid workers - a stance that has provoked the wrath of the international community.

"Relief and rehabilitation tasks call for a lot of relief supplies and funds," he said.

"So far, the nation does not need skilled relief workers yet."

Aid workers warn that far more relief supplies are needed to prevent a humanitarian tragedy in Burma's worst-hit areas, and that the junta is ill-equipped to distribute supplies.

Official media in Burma reports that nearly 32,000 people were killed when the cyclone slammed into the country overnight on May 2.

But the UN has warned the toll could be much much higher, and that up to two million people are in desperate need of aid.