Wednesday, 21 May 2008

Weekly journals ordered not to cover "destruction", but cover "reconstruction"

Min Khet Maung

Rangoon (Mizzima)- Private weekly journals in Burma have been ordered by the press scrutiny board not to run any story that depicts the destruction but to cover the reconstruction exercise undertaken by the authorities in the aftermath of the cyclone that pummeled Rangoon and Irrawaddy delta areas, according to local journalists.

"We were told by the scrutiny board not to cover the news of destruction. But, were told to cover the reconstruction they are doing," an editor of a weekly told Mizzima on condition of anonymity for fear of junta's reprisal for telling the outside media.

The authorities are reportedly angry with the head of the censor board, Major Tint Swe, for having passed some cyclone stories that described the damage to buildings and loss of property with pictures.

The head of military junta Senior General Than Shwe flared up when he found a front page story from the Bi-weekly Eleven news journal that said, "The plight of storm victims should not be exploited."

"As Myanmar [Burmese] readers are clever enough to read between the lines, they immediately realized that the story did criticize the junta that has been showing how kind they are in helping the victims by using international aids as theirs," said a journalist.

An editor said that the censor board cannot control Weekly Eleven or Bi-weekly news journals since there are some generals behind the scenes. Which is why, Major Tint Swe tried to tell the boss of Eleven Media group this is a direct order from the ministry of communication for all weekly journals.

"We were also warned that we must not describe how people are starving for lack of food," one senior journalist, who has five years experience in reporting, told Mizzima.

The Burma Media Association, a Burmese press freedom watchdog, condemned the junta for the restriction imposed saying it not only violates press freedom but also violates and suppresses the peoples' rights.

"The Burmese government is trying to conceal the sufferings of the people and making false claims that they are conducting rescue and relief missions," Son Moe Wai, Secretary of the BMA said.

A journalist, who returned from the worst hit areas, said she found nothing being reconstructed there by the junta.

"So, what should we cover under the title -- 'reconstruction phase'?" she asked, "They [soldiers] haven't even finished clearing the towns yet let alone undertake the reconstruction phase."

"Journalists are meant to tell the truth so that people will know of the situation in Burma. Suppressing the press at this time is outrageous and shameful," Son Moe Wai said.


Reconstruction Just Propaganda, Say Rangoon Residents

The Irrawaddy News

Despite more than 1,000 tons of international aid dispatched to Burma for cyclone victims, many residents in Rangoon say they have had to pay inflated prices for reconstruction materials while others have received no aid and are still living outdoors.

“Although some Burmese troops are cleaning up roads, they are not giving any materials to the victims to rebuild their homes,” said Kyi Win, a Rangoon resident. Some plastic sheeting has been provided, but not enough for all the affected households; people have only plastic sheeting to shelter their homes, he added.

Meanwhile, local authorities set up some 40 temporary tents for those made homeless by the cyclone in Rangoon and then filmed the humanitarian exercise for state-run television.

“It is all just propaganda,” said Kyi Win.

Speaking to The Irrawaddy by telephone on Monday, Tin Yu, a local resident in Rangoon’s Hlaing Tharyar Township, said that non-international aid—government supplies and voluntary contributions by philaphropist Burmese— has been delivered to many cyclone victims who are staying in local schools and monasteries while authorities say they are carrying out reconstruction work on their houses.

But they aren’t, he said.

“Nothing is for free,” Tin Yu said. “To buy zinc and nails, people have to fill in an application form. One application form alone is 500 kyat (US $0.44). The purchase of zinc is limited—an average of just seven one-foot sheets of zinc per household. One sheet of zinc costs 4,900 kyat ($4.33).”

Supplies are sold at the Township Peace and Development Council office and people who want to buy materials need to provide a letter of recommendation from a member of the Ward Peace and Development Council, he said. People also have to queue up for a long time to get the chance to buy materials, Tin Yu added.

Meanwhile, Kyi Win said that local philanthropists—including celebrities and well-established figures in Rangoon—were being driven away from cyclone-ravaged areas by members of the pro-junta group, the Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA) while trying to make donations to the cyclone victims.

“Members of the USDA are telling the volunteers to give the supplies to them and they (the USDA members) will deliver those supplies to the victims on their behalf,” he said.

Tin Yu added that a group of private donors who recently visited wards 18 and 20 in Hlaing Tharyar Township were driven out by local authorities—members of the Ward Peace and Development Council.

Instead of helping the victims, the local authorities are confiscating supplies and selling them at highly inflated prices to the victims, said Tin Yu.

According to employees of local authorities, the chairman of Ward 8 in Hlaing Tharyar Township, Aung Myint, requisitioned some 20 gallons of diesel for himself, while the secretary of Ward 8, Maung Zaw, stole 15 gallons.

Aye Kyu, a resident in Laputta, one of the most affected areas in the Irrawaddy delta, said that USDA members in Laputta were forcing local people who have been aiding the cyclone survivors to wear caps bearing the emblem of the USDA while delivering supplies to victims.

About 70 percent of cyclone survivors are still waiting for aid, according to the United Nations World Food Program. Spokesman Marcus Prior said that just 250,000 people had received a two-week ration of rice, while 750,000 survivors were in desperate need of food, according to a report by Agence France-Presse.

Meanwhile, the Burmese prime minister, Gen Thein Sein, recently told his Thai counterpart, Samak Sundaravej, that the Burmese government had completed the first phase—emergency relief, and was now moving on to the second phase—rebuilding.

The world and its media are playing the dictators' game

Simon Jenkins

Heroic Chinese rescuers and quake survivors lead the news. But away from our TVs, the Burmese we could save are left to die

Two dictators faced two disasters, one in China, the other in Burma. One was an earthquake, the other a flood. Tens of thousands are dead and millions at risk. Being dictatorial, both regimes responded in a manner heavy with the politics of sovereignty. In one case that helps people, in the other it kills them.

Natural disasters are the world's greatest murderers after war and disease. Nature does not do revenge (as far as we know), but it leaves human beings to do mercy and recuperation. How they performs that task is the test of civilisation.

China's response to the Sichuan earthquake contrasts so glaringly with previous responses that I am inclined to revise my view of the Olympics: perhaps they should always be held in dictatorships. After the shambles of the world torch tour, the handling of the earthquake has been a political coup.

Inviting the media to the scene was fairly low risk. An earthquake is one big bang and, with the entire Red Army available, a rescue is a rescue. The world has fallen in love with trapped Chinese, tearful Chinese, heroic Chinese, efficient Chinese. A nation often portrayed as a massive monotony is revealed for the first time as composed of sensitive humans. Tibet and the torch have been forgotten and the Olympics shifted from obscene accolade to worthy reward. China is overnight OK. It leads the news.

Poor little Burma. Its disaster is far greater and its deaths possibly four times worse than China's. As the head of the Merlin relief agency, Sean Keogh, said on the radio yesterday, "such an epic calamity would test the reserves of any nation", none more so than Burma's.

The nature of its disaster means that the initial death toll from the tidal wave may well be overwhelmed by a secondary one from starvation and disease. In China, a few more lucky souls may be pulled from the rubble. In Burma, tens of thousands continue to teeter between salvation and death. The Burmese victims need help to a degree that China does not.

The people of the Irrawaddy delta are the most charming and most wretched in south-east Asia. While the rest of Britain's Indian empire adopted some form of democracy, Burma became a brutish hegemony, its leaders from the same charm school as Cambodia's Pol Pot. They still imprison, torture and kill their opponents, and suppress dissident minorities such as the Karens.

Unlike China, with the Olympics in the offing, Burma's regime has no interest in publicity. Under economic sanctions since 1991, its narrative to its people is that the outside world, especially the west, is the cause of all their woes. They can be saved only by the omnipotent, self-styled State Law and Order Restoration Council (Orwellian acronym, SLORC). That Burma should need foreign help, let alone from foreign soldiers, destroys that narrative. It is anathema.

To the regime, publicity and the aid it might bring is a greater disaster than any hurricane. It suggests incompetence and impotence. So instead we read daily stories of western diplomats "putting pressure" on intransigent generals. We read of neighbouring states sending in pitiful trickles of aid. The UN World Food Programme reports that fewer than a quarter of a million victims have received any help at all, in an area with two million at risk. Keogh says he saw no helicopters at work. Yet the agencies, which must keep their peace with the regime, dare not complain, let alone take pictures.

The world and its media are playing the dictators' game. They are doing exactly what the Chinese regime wants, and exactly what the Burmese regime wants. They are giving inordinate coverage to every crushed Sichuan school-child and ignoring two million Burmese.

In China the victim is the story. In Burma it is the awfulness of the regime. The media salves its conscience, as do politicians, by stressing the "urgency" of the catastrophe and callousness of the generals. It regards that as its job well done.

Off the Irrawaddy coast for the past 10 days has sat an aid armada, including two dozen heavy-lift helicopters vital to transport supplies over water and broken roads. The full panoply of humanitarian intervention, so boasted by Tony Blair in 1998 and by the UN in 2006, stands idle.

That panoply was proudly mobilised by politicians and aid merchants to help the afflicted of Lebanon and Somalia, Bosnia and Kosovo, Aghanistan and Iraq. Then I recall no pettifogging over proper channels, no "we can do only what the regime permits". Then lawyers were told to validate intervention rather than object to it. Thousands of human lives were at risk, and that was enough to send in the marines.

Not now. Now, for some reason, we are told by these brave hearts that we must defer to the sensibilities of a dictatorship. We must consider what might happen if a helicopter were shot down. We must think of aid agency staff on the ground. We grasp thankfully at this week's dilatory and implausible "breakthrough", under which the regime promises to let in our aid if it comes under an Asean banner. Like hell it will.

When, long ago, I was pleading the humanitarian cause of the East Timorese, the usual response was, who are they? The answer was, they were the same as the Lebanese, the Somalians and the Kosovans, but unfortunately not on television. Only when they rose in bloody revolt did the camera crews arrive.

The truth of modern foreign policy is that it responds not to humanitarian need but, as in Iraq, to domestic politics and some warped perception of national security. Humanitarianism is only a factor when some catastrophe discomfits those into whose sitting rooms it is beamed by the media.

I have no desire to fight, let alone topple, the Burmese generals. I do not believe, if aid pallets were airlifted ashore, the regime's pitiful force in the delta would dare attack them, and I would expect air cover if they tried. Nor do I care what the Chinese or Thais say about the matter. Such action would have nothing to do with the fate of the generals, rather with that of the hundreds of thousands they have left to die.

We cannot save lives in China, but we can in Burma. We choose not to do so because the Burmese regime has successfully choked the publicity that nowadays motivates humanitarian zeal. Burma is not on television. That is civilisation for you.

U.N. chief: Myanmar OKs foreign helicopters

YANGON, Myanmar - The United Nations has received permission from Myanmar's government to operate nine helicopters to bring relief supplies to victims of Cyclone Nargis, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Tuesday.

"We have received government permission to operate nine WFP (World Food Program) helicopters, which will allow us to reach areas that have so far been largely inaccessible," Ban told reporters in New York before departing on a mission to Myanmar.

His announcement was not immediately confirmed by Myanmar officials.

"I believe further similar moves will follow, including expediting the visas of relief workers seeking to enter the country," he said. "I'm confident that emergency relief efforts can be scaled up quickly."

Mourning begins
The country began three days of mourning for the 134,000 dead and missing.

Flags at government offices, schools and large hotels in Myanmar were lowered to half-staff. But shops were open as usual and many people in Yangon said they had little idea of what the government-announced mourning entailed.

Some residents frustrated with the junta's response to the disaster called it a symbolic gesture that lacked sincerity.

"If they are sincere, they should welcome help from everyone," said Zin Moe, 32, who sells clothes. "They are not letting in aid quickly enough, and people are angry."

The military-led regime said Monday it would allow its Asian neighbors to oversee distribution of foreign relief to cyclone survivors.

But most foreign aid workers still were banned early Tuesday from the storm-devastated area and the United Nations said only a fraction of the survivors had received some form of international assistance.

A senior U.S. diplomat said that Myanmar's military-led government will be responsible if thousands of desperate cyclone survivors die because foreign aid and disaster workers were barred from the country.

Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Scot Marciel told lawmakers in Washington that the generals running Myanmar cannot manage the distribution of aid needed to help people facing disease, malnutrition and exposure to the elements.

U.N. Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs John Holmes is in Myanmar to persuade its government to allow in more international assistance and pave the way for a visit this week by Ban.

Holmes told reporters Tuesday that Ban will meet with Senior Gen. Than Shwe, the head of the ruling junta. Myanmar officials were not immediately available to confirm the meeting plan.

Ban said he's hoping to press the country's military leaders for speedy relief for cyclone victims.

He told reporters before heading to the airport on Tuesday that "this is a critical moment for Myanmar."

Survivors face disease, malnutrition
He said there is a functioning relief program in place but so far it has been able to reach only 25 percent of the people in need. He said he welcomed the government's "recent flexibility" in allowing Asian relief workers under the auspices of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations to begin distributing international aid supplies.

The secretary-general is scheduled to arrive in Myanmar on Thursday morning.

He is expected to inspect the areas devastated by the storm as well as talk with Myanmar officials. On Sunday, he is supposed to attend a meeting of aid donors in Yangon.

The cyclone's official death toll stands at about 78,000, with 56,000 more people missing. Conditions in the low-lying Irrawaddy delta remain precarious, with survivors facing disease, malnutrition and exposure to the elements.

A Myanmar doctor returning from the delta said refugees in the bigger towns were receiving some aid and medical care but expressed concern for those in outlying villages.

Villagers were still trickling into the towns because they had received no aid, she said.

"We saw one young girl yesterday. Her lips and her nails were blue. She looked like she was going to die," Tin Sein said on Tuesday. "People who haven't eaten or drunk clean water and also completely exposed to the rains and storm."

"I don't think anyone has a good picture right now of the overall situation," she said. "People give different facts and figures. It's a major problem."

State-owned media reported Tuesday that the head of thejunta met victims in the Irrawaddy delta Monday, saying the regime had "promptly carried out rescue and rehabilitation tasks."

The general said the government has spent more than $45.5 million on relief operations, has met immediate needs such as food, shelter and health care and is moving into the reconstruction phase.

'Long way to go'
Foreign aid agencies and the United Nations were less upbeat. They said only some 500,000 of as many as 2.4 million storm victims have received some form of international assistance.

"I think there is still a long way to go to improve the relief efforts, to speed it up and to make sure that all the people who are in need are reached," said Holmes, the U.N. undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs. "There is still a major effort to be mounted on the relief side, which has to go on for some three to six months."

Sean Keogh, a trauma doctor with the group who returned recently from Myanmar, told the British Broadcasting Corp. on Tuesday that "no country can really cope with that kind of emergency on their own."

He noted that even the United States had accepted outside help after Hurricane Katrina.

In Singapore, an emergency meeting of foreign ministers from the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations agreed to set up an ASEAN-led task force for redistributing foreign aid.

Myanmar agreed to open its doors to medical teams from all ASEAN countries, Singapore Foreign Minister George Yeo said. ASEAN member Thailand already has sent teams, as have non-ASEAN neighbors India and China.

Myanmar, one of the world's poorest nations, claims losses from the disaster exceeded $10 billion. But it may have problems funding a recovery.

World Bank Managing Director Juan Jose Daboub said Tuesday the bank will not give any financial aid or loans because Myanmar has failed to repay its debts for a decade.

Daboub said the World Bank is providing technical support to assess damage in Myanmar and help plan economic reconstruction.

"But the bank cannot legally provide any (financial) resources to Myanmar because it is in arrears with the bank since 1998," he said in Singapore.

Burma's Woes: A Threat to the Junta


I spent a week reporting from remote towns in the cyclone-ravaged Irrawaddy delta before the Burmese junta began its crackdown. Foreign aid workers, diplomats and undercover journalists were expelled from the disaster area or barred entry at police or military checkpoints. Beyond those checkpoints, Burmese were suffering and dying — 2.4 million people urgently need help, says the United Nations. But the junta's restrictions made it almost impossible for outsiders to witness it.

Within days, a British colleague and I were deported for secretly reporting on the disaster. I wondered: why hadn't we been kicked out the previous September, when we had covered the junta's violent suppression of street protests led by Buddhist monks? Answer: because the generals are far more worried by the political implications of the cyclone — and they should be. The combination of popular anger and the junta's reluctant but necessary acceptance of foreign assistance may yet combine to unseat a seemingly unshakeable regime.

First, the popular anger. "Chinese hearts beat as one," went the national slogan after the Sichuan earthquake. But Burmese hearts ache for millions of cyclone victims neglected by a regime with no heart at all. Countless private citizens are driving trucks loaded with food, water and clothes into the delta. Monks are heading there too, in what could become their biggest mobilization since last September's protests. The regime's expulsion of foreigners has meant that international aid agencies in the area are staffed almost entirely by Burmese, many from other parts of the country. News of the extent of the suffering is spreading by word of mouth, paralleling the Chinese media's unprecedented coverage of the earthquake. Thousands more are watching a Burmese-made documentary circulating secretly in Rangoon containing searing testimony from survivors of the cyclone. The emotional consequences are enormous.

The government claims it is doing its part. "We have already finished our first phase of emergency relief. We are going on to the second phase, the rebuilding stage," announced Burmese Prime Minister Thein Sein. But with so many Burmese witnessing first-hand the suffering of their compatriots — and passing the word on — never has state propaganda been less convincing.

The Burmese populace is also seeing how effectively the Chinese authorities dealt with catastrophe in Sichuan, with People's Liberation Army soldiers digging through the rubble and President Hu Jintao meeting survivors. "I'm surprised the Burmese [military] didn't take the opportunity to show they are a people's army too," says a veteran Western aid worker in Rangoon. Instead, Gen. Than Shwe, Burma's head of state, stayed put in the junta's half-built new capital of Naypyidaw, which was unaffected by the cyclone. Only on Sunday did he finally venture into the Irrawaddy delta to meet some of its more presentable survivors. Then — apparently following China's lead — the junta announced three days of national mourning beginning Tuesday. These are the first signs that the junta is beginning to realize both the scale of the disaster and its emotional impact on millions of Burmese.

Gen. Than Shwe won't be dislodged by post-cyclone anger alone. Zaganar, a Burmese comedian and democratic activist who was briefly jailed for his role in last September's protests, believes the cyclone might have even strengthened the military's hand. Before Cyclone Nargis, people were "ready to rise up" over rising prices and the regime's obsession with holding its rigged referendum, says Zaganar. "But this is the luck of the generals. Nargis helped them because people are shocked, afraid. No one can concentrate on politics."

But the generals cannot rest easy. The Irrawaddy region accounts for perhaps a quarter of Burma's rice-growing area. Nargis devastated one harvest and made the next crop nearly impossible to plant. "A town is well-fed only when the countryside prospers," runs an old Burmese saying. And when the countryside is devastated? Already the cost of rice in Rangoon is rising and many stores are informally rationing it. Add to this soaring global food prices and the junta's post-Nargis vow to continue its ambitious rice-exporting program, and Burma faces a looming crisis. The rising cost of basic commodities has triggered unrest before — and will do so again.

And let's not forget: Burma had a humanitarian crisis well before Nargis struck. Malnutrition is widespread. So are malaria and tuberculosis. The healthcare system barely functions. This was exacerbated not only by the junta's refusal to accept foreign aid but by another factor. For too long, influential lobbies in Washington and elsewhere have essentially argued that depriving Burma of humanitarian aid will hasten the junta's demise. Now, the opposite could prove true. The influx of foreign aid and foreign experts will force Burma to engage with the world as never before. A donor conference on Saturday will bring scores more foreign delegates to Rangoon. The junta's agreement to accept more help from its Asian neighbors is a small concession. But it is still one more concession than the world got after the intense diplomatic pressure brought to bear after last September's protests.

The day I was expelled from Burma, The New Light of Myanmar,* a state-run newspaper, had a small story buried at the foot of page six. It announced a doubling of the estimated numbers of dead and missing to more than 130,000. The final death toll could top 200,000, said a British government report last week. Save the Children are warning that thousands of children could starve. If there is a scrap of solace in all this, here it is: the junta's pitiless response to the cyclone is alienating the very people it depends upon for its own survival. One young Special Branch officer at the airport seemed embarrassed to be expelling a foreign journalist whose only crime was trying to publicize the plight of Burmese disaster victims. "Please forgive me," he kept telling me. "Please forgive me." I now realize he wasn't embarrassed at all. He was ashamed.

*The junta that rules the country unilaterally decreed changes in place names, including Myanmar for Burma and Yangon for the former capital Rangoon. The U.S. State Department has not recognized these changes. TIME has chosen to retain the name Burma.