Saturday, 21 June 2008

Doubting donors withhold Burma aid

Brian McCartan
Asia Times Online, Hong Kong
June 20, 2008

Reverting to their tried and tested diplomatic strategy of making concessions and then not following through on those commitments, Burma's ruling junta appears to be weathering yet another storm of international criticism over its controversial handling of the Cyclone Nargis disaster.

The military regime's recent agreements with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the United Nations (UN) to allow international relief workers and aid into the country to help handle the humanitarian crisis was greeted with guarded optimism by the international community. Foreign donors have since taken a wait-and-see posture to the junta's request for US$11.7 billion in reconstruction and rehabilitation and recent developments should give them pause.

Cyclone Nargis, which made landfall on May 2, killed an estimated 135,000 people, although the junta only officially claims 78,000, a figure it has not updated since mid-May. The UN estimates that 2.4 million people were affected by the killer storm and 1 million are still in need of help. Senior US government officials have characterized the junta's callous response to the disaster as "criminally negligent".

Now the UN and ASEAN are at risk of abetting what many view as the junta's crimes against humanity through its initial lack of response and subsequent obstruction of aid deliveries associated with the natural disaster. One month into the internationalized relief effort, there are growing signs that the junta has reneged on its promises to better address the humanitarian crisis, raising difficult questions about whether the international community should or should not pledge billions of dollars to Burma's government to rebuild and rehabilitate disaster-hit areas.

The junta's concession to allow increased access for aid workers and relief shipments came at the end of a three-day mission to Burma by UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon to cyclone-affected areas and his meeting on May 23 with Burma's reclusive leader, Senior General Than Shwe, who before the high-profile visit had refused to accept Ban's phone calls about the cyclone disaster. ASEAN has since established a coordinating body of nine members to manage the international relief effort, with three representatives each from the Myanmar government, UN and ASEAN.

ASEAN secretary general Surin Pitsuwan referred to the arrangement as an "international social contract" upon unveiling the plan to foreign journalists in Bangkok in late May. At that same time, the United States, United Kingdom and France all had warships laden with aid situated off Burma's coast. Earlier, France's Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner had suggested that the UN and Western countries unilaterally force aid on Myanmar if the generals refused to receive foreign assistance.

Editorials in several leading international papers and this publication raised the prospect of a US-led, UN-endorsed exercising of the global body's "right to protect" mandate, where the US military could have delivered aid to the estimated two million people worst affected in remote Irrawaddy Delta region.

During a May 25 donor conference held in Rangoon and attended by representatives from 44 countries, ministers from the 10 ASEAN nations, and several UN agencies, Thein Sein made it clear that all aid work and assistance was welcome as long as it came with "no strings attached". He told the conference, "We will warmly welcome any assistance and aid which are provided with genuine good will from any country or organization providing that there are no strings attached, nor politicization involved."

Following the conference, Ban deemed the mission a success saying, "Senior General Than Shwe agreed to allow all international aid workers to operate freely and without hindrance. The Myanmar government appears to be moving toward the right direction to implement these accords." Ban later added: "I think the Myanmar government is moving fast in the right direction." ASEAN's top representative Surin told a Bangkok press conference: "We are prying the country open step-by-step ... There is a reciprocal sense of urgency."

Show us the money

Representatives at the donor conference, however, were less convinced, judging by the meager $50 million to $100 million they initially pledged. That lackluster response was due to several governments' concerns that Burma would not honor its commitments and was rushing to reconstruct disaster areas before the relief and rescue missions had been satisfactorily completed. Nearly one month later, Ban's optimism has arguably not been borne out in practice.

Nor have donor commitments been forthcoming. As of June 13, the UN had received only $88.5 million of its $201 million target for relief-oriented aid. Some countries have delayed their pledged disbursements due to their concerns about government restrictions on how aid has been distributed and reports that displaced villagers have been forced back by government authorities to their home areas without proper food, water or shelter.

Realizing that a US military-led, UN-endorsed humanitarian intervention was off the table, Burma's generals have since hardened their stance and imposed new bureaucratic hurdles against international humanitarian assistance and domestic donor groups which have inhibited the efficient and equitable distribution of aid.

New government guidelines were issued on June 9 stipulating that UN agencies and all international and domestic relief groups must seek permission for travel and aid distribution from several different authorities, including government ministries. So-called township coordination committees must also be kept informed of aid workers' movements and activities, according to the new guidelines.

In addition, several sources indicated that permission has to be obtained from local military, Light Infantry Division 66 and the Southwest Command responsible for the Irrawaddy Delta region. Relief workers in the Delta say that they must tell the exact name of the village they are going to and what supplies they are bringing and be accompanied by a government official at all times.

Prior to this announcement, foreigners working with relief agencies who wanted access to the worst-hit Delta areas had to obtain official permission from the Ministry of Defense, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Social Welfare. By June 10, 195 foreign workers had been issued visas by the junta and the UN's World Food Program was operating 10 helicopters.

On June 11, the World Food Program confirmed that it had been told by the government that they would no longer be able to buy relief rice domestically and would have to receive government permission to import rice. A more worrying sign of the regime's hardening line on relief aid have been the recent arrests and increased restrictions on domestic donors, who to date have played a key role in the amount of relief which has been distributed.

Local donors had earlier identified the payment of bribes, fees to use roads and bridges, and even confiscation of aid by the authorities as major hindrances to their efforts. Now they also risk harassment and even imprisonment. Twenty-five cyclone survivors from Dagon township, including women and children, were arrested by authorities on June 10 on their way to the United Nations Development Program offices in Rangoon to plead for more assistance.

Their arrests were followed by the recent detention of three local aid workers in Rangoon and prominent activist and journalist Zaw Thet Htway, who had helped organize volunteer cyclone relief. The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners based in Mae Sot, Thailand, claims that 10 domestic donors have been arrested since the beginning of the month.

Instead, the government is angling to monopolize the distribution of local aid. An announcement in the state-mouthpiece New Light of Myanmar newspaper on June 16 said that local donations could now be made through the government-run Rehabilitation and Reconstruction Sub-committee of the National Disaster Preparedness Central Committee and through district and township offices. This was viewed by many local donors as an order rather than a request. Previous announcements that aid donations could be "more effectively" distributed if given to government organizations had been largely ignored.

Many fear the government's attempts to limit how money and donations are distributed will discourage many from continuing to donate. Local donors note that, since the WFP is providing only rice, villagers have relied on them to provide other staples such as salt, vegetables, meat and oil. If local donors are forced to channel their assistance through government organizations, it is widely feared that much of the food aid would be in the direct control of the junta, which has already caused international aid shipments to disappear into government warehouses from where their contents have reappeared in local markets at inflated prices.

Indeed, where the junta sees the potential for making money, it has adopted a more conciliatory approach. In a move hailed by the concerned agencies and organizations as a sign of increased cooperation, 250 experts from the UN, Burmese government and ASEAN last week began a village-by-village survey to determine how much food, water and shelter was still needed.

The projected cost of reconstructing houses and schools and rehabilitating the agricultural sector is also being evaluated by the joint assessment team. That broad assessment will be completed on June 24 and released to the public the following week. It will also be used by the junta as a quasi-independent figure to present to the international donors who rejected their initial $11.7 billion appeal.

Well-worn tactics

Big donors like the US, Australia and European countries, including the Netherlands, Germany, Denmark and Sweden, which had previously said their donations were contingent on greater access, have yet to indicate to what extent they are satisfied or otherwise by the junta's recent actions. The US Senate on June 12 renewed its import restrictions on goods produced in Burma, after previously committing $35 million in relief and the use of US military aircraft for aid delivery to Yangon airport.

The New Light of Myanmar carried a scathing editorial on June 13 that many observers believe targeted the US, claiming, "The goodwill of a big Western nation that wants to help Myanmar with its warships was not genuine." Myanmar's state media had voiced fears in the past that the US could use humanitarian assistance as a pretense to invade the country George W Bush administration officials have frequently referred to as an "outpost of tyranny" due to the junta's abysmal rights record.

In perhaps the clearest display that the generals have no intention of changing their repressive ways was the regime's decision, two days after the international donor conference, to extend the house arrest of Nobel Peace Prize winner and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi for a sixth consecutive year. The continued detention of the democratic opposition leader was apparently not open to discussion during Ban's meetings with top Myanmar officials. Ban said that while he regretted the junta's decision, he had been in Burma on "purely humanitarian grounds".

Critics suggest that the regime is employing the same tactics it has used in the past to deflect intense international criticism. They contend the generals used a similar routine after their crackdown last year on Buddhist monk-led protests garnered worldwide media attention. After the junta agreed to meet with UN special envoy to Burma Ibrahim Gambari, the generals showed signs of conciliation but continued to round up and detain protest leaders once international attention focused elsewhere.

Many Burma watchers and exiled opposition groups say that the UN has fallen into the same trap through its diplomatic overtures in the wake of the cyclone. As global media interest in the cyclone's aftermath wanes, the junta is fast returning to its oppressive ways and continues to treat the disaster more as a national security threat than a humanitarian mission.

The same critics say that ASEAN is also allowing itself to be used by the junta for its own cynical political purposes. Rather than leveraging its influence on Burma to respond more humanely to the crisis, the regional grouping has functioned more as a pressure valve for the junta to escape international condemnation.

The ASEAN secretary general was upbeat after the donor conference telling journalists, "We have been able to establish a space, a humanitarian space, however small to engage with the Myanmar authorities," Surin said. "That humanitarian space needs to be sustained through political decisions, through political flexibility."

During a more recent one-day ASEAN Leadership Forum, Surin told the attendees that a "new ASEAN" has emerged from its response to the disaster in Burma. He stated his belief that ASEAN has shown the world that the grouping was up to the responsibility placed on it, saying, "It just so happened that we are being baptized by the Cyclone Nargis. That is the test of our new ASEAN."

Burma was allowed to join ASEAN in 1997, amid strong international protests, after providing assurances that it would take steps to move towards more openness and democracy. Despite this and repeated criticisms of ASEAN for not pressuring Burma more, the grouping has stood by its member nation in the interest of regional solidarity and its long-held policy of non-interference in the domestic affairs of members.

Countries in the region, some say, would also stand to profit from reconstruction and rehabilitation contracts, assuming the international community is willing to foot the bill. Despite the fact a million Burmese citizens are still in desperate need of aid and assistance, two Thai medical teams that had been working under an ASEAN banner in the Irrawaddy Delta area recently returned to Thailand after Burmese officials told them that their assistance was no longer required and that local doctors had the situation under control.

The removal of the Thai medical teams stands in stark contradiction to the assessment of most foreign aid workers, who now say the bolstered relief and assistance program will have to be sustained at the very least until the end of the year, while local groups and residents say the international effort will take much longer to achieve stability. Whether the military regime's patience with a foreign presence will last that long, particularly if the billions of dollars in reconstruction aid it has requested are not forthcoming, remains a crucial humanitarian question.


Will corruption hurt relief effort?

Aaron Goodman
June 20, 2008

The international community has poured $85 million dollars into Myanmar, but rights groups claim the junta is already misusing and manipulating aid, preventing it from reaching cyclone survivors who need it most urgently.

"The misuse of aid remains a concern," Amnesty International's Southeast Asia researcher, Benjamin Zawacki told me. "Indeed, the problem with much aid distribution to date is not so much that it has fallen into the 'wrong hands', but that it has not reached the right ones. There are still people who have not received aid, and much of it remains simply unaccounted for."

Amnesty has reported several cases where aid delivered by the junta was conditioned on cyclone victims' willingness to work, or to vote in the May constitutional referendum, or join the military. It has confirmed over 40 reports of soldiers or local government officials confiscating, diverting, or misusing aid intended for cyclone survivors.

The group has reported that the military junta is forcibly displacing survivors from official and non-official settlements, leaving them with no alternative shelter.

Zawacki stressed that Amnesty is concerned about further manipulation of aid as the rehabilitation, reconstruction, and resettlement phases of the operation get underway. "The reconstruction of rural infrastructure projects is a particular worry," he said. "Work-for-food schemes are acceptable and even advantageous, but they must be designed and administered on a fair and voluntary basis."

Debbie Stothard from the advocacy group Alternative Asean Network on Burma said there wasn't any doubt Burma's government had already misused aid.


"They have been warehousing the aid and refusing offers of helicopters and other transportation of equipment from ASEAN (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations) and other countries that could be used to deliver aid quickly and efficiently," Stothard said. "Generals have been photographed handing out boxes plastered with their names, aid that was clearly donated by neighbouring countries and international agencies."

Rights watchdogs, U.N. agencies, and NGOs have unanimously expressed concern about the potential misuse or corruption of aid since Burma announced the rescue phase of the cyclone response had ended, and that $11 billion was needed for reconstruction.

Stothard's organisation said there were reports that the junta has discriminated against minority Karen in their aid delivery, after displacing 76,000 Karen civilians in a military offensive in the east of the country that is still ongoing.

The Karen make up half the population in the delta, and have been fighting the Burmese regime for decades for their own homeland.

"We have been demanding for access by independent assessment teams to all affected areas so that ethnic Karen complaints of discrimination by the junta can be properly investigated," she said.

Stothard said Karen affected by the cyclone were already making their way to the Thai-Burmese border. "They are desperate for help... Help that had been denied them in the delta area for over a month since Cyclone Nargis."

The Irrawaddy, a magazine run by exiled journalists from Burma in Chiang Mai, Thailand, reported that aid workers in Laputta township told them the Ayear Shwe Wah company was pressuring cyclone survivors to work on reconstruction projects for $0.70 a day.


The magazine said that Burma's generals had allegedly given lucrative reconstruction contracts to companies run by their cronies, many with spotty track records of corruption and illegal activity.

According to the Irrawaddy, one of the companies is Asia World, the country's biggest construction firm. It's run by Tun Myint Naing, also known as Steven Law, a Burmese businessman on a U.N. sanctions list because of his suspected links with drug trafficking.

International NGO Transparency International ranked Burma as the most corrupt among 179 countries surveyed in its 2007 Corruption Perception Index. Burma was matched only by Somalia, and followed closely by Iraq. Many aid groups insist their long histories in the country give them leverage to get around corruption entirely. Before the cyclone, some 50 aid organisations were working in Burma.

Sarah Saxton, press officer for Britain's Department for International Development (DfID), said: "Our aid is going only to the U.N., Red Cross and NGOs, not directly to the government." She told me: "We are funding these organisations, as they have a good track record of delivery in Myanmar."

Yet given the nature of Burma's regime and the country's political situation, DfID and others are taking extra steps to ensure aid isn't misused or corrupted "The system will bring together local and expatriate staff of DfID's partner organisations, and involve coordination meetings with DfID in country," Saxton said.

But without full access to affected areas, especially the delta, the risks of aid going array dramatically rise. BYPASSING PROBLEMS

The charge d'affaires at the U.S. embassy in Rangoon, Shari Villarosa, told me: "For that reason, donors from around the world have repeatedly emphasised the need for unhindered international access into the cyclone-affected areas." She said: "In that way, we will be able to closely monitor the distribution of relief supplies to ensure that they get to those most in need."

Yet even if full access is granted, aid groups may not be able to entirely prevent the misuse or corruption of funds.

Marie-Luise Ahlendorf, programme coordinator of the Humanitarian Assistance Project at Transparency International, said: "Their relatively small presence prior to the cyclone in Myanmar puts them at a disadvantage in understanding the social context and local power structures, and thus preventing corrupt abuse of international aid."

A report by the Active Learning Network for Accountability and Performance in Humanitarian Action (ALNAP) on the lessons aid agencies should learn from Cyclone Nargis said the unique challenges in Burma - restricted access in particular - made it necessary for relief organisations to be flexible. "It is important for donors to accept the dynamic and highly unpredictable context, and create forms of accountability which are tailored to the specific situations, enabling agents to operate in an adaptive fashion to changing circumstances," the report says.

It all brings to mind the problems for aid agencies in North Korea, which the regime reluctantly opened to international aid groups in the mid-1990s after a series of natural disasters created food shortages that threatened millions of lives.

But most international aid groups - with the exception of the World Food Programme and a few others - have pulled out of North Korea because the government prevented them from accessing affected people.

When it comes to Burma, international agency CARE insists its 14-year track record allows it to keep a close watch on where supplies wind up.

"Our operations are carried out by long-time CARE staff and local partners, and we are able to track our supplies and equipment from the point of purchase or delivery through to the distribution to the survivors themselves," CARE media officer Melanie Brooks told me.

Action Against Hunger also says it hasn't allowed country's political situation to stop it from launching relief programmes in Burma.

"If you follow the agreement that you have with the authorities, you find a way to do the job," Jean-Michel Grand, director of Action Against Hunger UK, told Reuters after the cyclone.

"As long as we're working on humanitarian activities, we find a modus operandi with the authorities and that's been for the last 15 years," he said.


A firsthand look at Burma aid relief frustrations

June 20, 2008
Scripps Howard News Service
Credits: San Francisco Chronicle

SAN FRANCISCO - Nearly two months after Cyclone Nargis slammed into Burma's Irrawaddy Delta, humanitarian relief groups are still struggling to get government permission to deliver life-saving aid to 2 million survivors, said Richard Jacquot, a San Francisco resident and emergency program manager for Mercy Corps.

In a conversation with the San Francisco Chronicle, Jacquot, who returned early this week from a month in Burma, detailed the enormous frustrations and the modest triumphs of helping cyclone victims recover under the watchful eye of an authoritarian regime.

Although Burma's military leaders promised U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon a month ago that they would admit aid workers of all nationalities, they continue to restrict aid delivery, he said.

The French-born Jacquot has spent 24 years working in some of the hardest-hit war zones and disaster areas on the planet -- from Sarajevo to Sudan and Congo to the Kurdish area of Iraq. He managed Hurricane Katrina recovery for Mercy Corps, an Oregon aid agency working in three dozen countries. Trained in international relations and economic development, Jacquot has worked for several humanitarian organizations coordinating emergency food, shelter, water, sanitation and health care.

The risks of providing aid in the midst of a war are manageable compared to the obstacles he confronted trying to deliver aid in Burma, said Jacquot, 58.

''You have to make contact with all the groups ... it's dangerous but you know the players,'' he said of his experiences in battle zones.

By contrast, in Burma, renamed Myanmar by the governing junta, ''there's no rhyme or reason. You don't know why you can go here today and tomorrow you can't,'' said Jacquot. ''It's the way an authoritarian regime works: It puts you off balance. That's the way it controls its population.''

Jacquot spent a month in Rangoon, coordinating with colleagues in the delta town of Laputta over government-issued cell phones. He was not permitted to leave the city and they were unable to travel out of the delta. Satellite phones and Internet access was blocked by the government.

Mercy Corps has only been able to operate in Burma because it affiliated itself with a British medical aid group, Merlin, which had already been working in Burma and had a memorandum of understanding with the government to equip health centers in the Irrawaddy Delta. Like other aid groups, Mercy Corps and Merlin have relied heavily on Burmese staff and associates who have been able to move more freely.

The greatest frustration, said Jacquot, was watching millions of dollars worth of aid and hundreds of skilled relief workers stay bottled up in Rangoon while hundreds of thousands of survivors subsist on almost nothing after the May 3 storm, which took an estimated 134,000 lives.

''Imagine Katrina: it was already a pretty difficult challenge for the U.S. to handle,'' he said. ''Now imagine the government has shut the area completely. No one is allowed inside and no aid is allowed to get in. The result is a population that needs assistance and cannot get it.''

Mercy Corps and Merlin managed to install three large barges loaded with supplies on rivers in the delta, then used smaller boats to ferry food, plastic sheeting and other materials from the barges to the villages.

Jacquot's team has employed Burmese health workers to serve the remote communities along the rivers and hired local people to drain salt water and clear corpses out of rainwater reservoirs and prepare them to catch the monsoon rains again for drinking water.

Jacquot said he was moved by the ingenuity and initiative of Burmese people in reaching out to their countrymen in spite of government-erected obstacles.

''One of the side effects of a controlling government is that it triggers human creativity,'' he said. ''What is extraordinary there is the response by local organizations. We have to admire them because they are taking a lot of risks.''

The United Nations, along with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and the Burmese government, is conducting a comprehensive disaster assessment to be complete next month. Early reports indicate that a feared wave of disease and death has not materialized.

But that doesn't mean that all is well in the Irrawaddy Delta, where families still huddle in shelters with their livestock and scrounge for food and fresh water, said Jacquot.

''The fact that there isn't secondary death doesn't mean they are not suffering,'' he said. ''You hear people say, 'It's amazing how resilient they are.' But what choice do they have?''

Meanwhile, aid workers like Jacquot debate how best to proceed in the face of continuing government resistance to foreign aid.

''Some say providing a little bit of help is better than no help at all, others say we should challenge the government further,'' said Jacquot, now back in his San Francisco living room. ''I don't know the answer but it's a dilemma everybody has to deal with.''

E-mail Tyche Hendricks at thendricks(at)

(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service,

Cyclone Nargis and the rice crisis: Analysis

Tai Kyaw

Jun 20, 2008 (DVB)–When Cyclone Nargis struck Burma on 2-3 May, it was a natural disaster that affected not only Irrawaddy division but also the whole of the country.

Irrawaddy division is considered the rice bowl of Burma due to its high level of rice production. A decrease in rice production is inevitable if rice cultivation cannot take place in time (in June), resulting in a huge impact on the nation’s rice supplies. The already unstable political atmosphere may progressively worsen through the scarcity of rice and the escalation of rice prices.

How bad and deep the problem will be depends on how the military regime handles the current situation and the amount of rice produced in this harvest season. We first need to know how much we have lost in the cyclone in order to assess the extent and severity of the rice crisis.

The previous farming and agriculture-related statistics issued by the regime are not reliable. After the cyclone struck Burma, systematic data collection with regard to the death toll and damage did not take place properly. The junta could not take care of the cyclone assessment itself and did not allow foreign experts to help. The ASEAN assessment team only began to collect data on the damages on 9 May, over a month after the cyclone ravaged the country.

According to the regime’s data, rice production in the whole of Burma totalled more than 1400 million tin last year. The regime said domestic consumption was 1000 million tin and there were over 400 million tin of rice stockpiled. This means the country produced approximately one third more than its actual consumption.

The International Rice Research Institute based in Manila, Philippines, says Burma produces 25 metric tons of rice a year and is the seventh highest rice producing country in the world. If Burma is producing a rice surplus of more than a third of its needs as the junta claims, the country would be able to export 8 metric tons of rice a year. However, the reality is that even the export of tens of thousands of tons had to stopped due to the cyclone, meaning the statistics of the regime cannot be trusted.

The recently cyclone-devastated Irrawaddy division produces 430 million tin of rice a year, which is about 30% of the whole country’s annual production. The regime’s data stated that there were over 5 million acres of paddy fields in Irrawaddy division, of which over 1.3 million acres were destroyed due to the presence of salt water brought by the cyclone. Even though the calculation of rice field damage was based on satellite photos taken by international organisations, a guess can be made that approximately one third of Irrawaddy division’s farmlands were destroyed.

In terms of the death of buffalo and cows, the Ministry of Agriculture and Irrigation stated that about 150,000 died. However, at the International Donors’ Conference held in Rangoon on 25 May, minister for National Planning and Economic Development Soe Thar said almost 300,000 cows and buffalo were killed by the cyclone.

The aforementioned differences in the data make it even more difficult to predict the forthcoming rice crisis in Burma.

In any case, a large rice-growing region of the country has already been badly affected. The authorities are aware of the potential rice problem caused by the devastation, which can lead to political unrest and threaten their power. Hence, they forced the cyclone victims back to their villages in order to work on their farms despite the fact that those people were in enormous trouble after having losing their loved ones and houses, and having no food and clothing.

In reality, all cyclone-affected farmers, fishermen and salt workers want to go back to their homes and resume their occupations as soon as possible. No one wants to live in a situation of virtual house arrest, having no freedom and being dependent on the donations of others. They just do not want to return yet because they don’t have anything. They don’t even have shacks with roofs and walls, or drinking water and food in their places.

There is a great need to revitalize the rice cultivation in the cyclone-devastated Irrawaddy division. Farmer’s families should be provided with secure places to live. Assistance should be given to obtain drinking water for locals, such as pumping out the water from ponds and lakes full of salt water and cleaning them.

Since farmers have lost their stockpiled rice that was meant for their own consumption, they should be supported with rice for at least 4-6 months. Instead of buffalo and cows, hand tractors for cultivation should be provided to farmers in good time. Fuel also should be supplied constantly. The most important is that farmers obtain paddy seeds for germination, which can resist salt water.

Rice experts have pointed out that about 2 million tin of paddy seeds for germination are needed to grow rice this year. They have also requested that the military regime import paddy seeds from abroad. Everything needed for rice cultivation has to be in place by June. Otherwise, the late cultivation will have an impact on production in the coming rice collection season.

The massive need for relief, reconstruction and revitalization efforts in Burma cannot be tackled by the military regime and domestic NGOs alone but also requires the effective support, participation and expertise from the international community. The international community has offered and is still offering to help cyclone victims but the generals have refused to welcome the assistance. The regime has asked the world to give them donations but does not want any outsiders to enter the country. They said they did not need any expertise and that they could manage the catastrophe themselves, and that’s why problems have deepened with each passing day.

Normally, international aid comes into a country with its own rules and regulations over how much assistance is to be provided, to whom and for what reasons. It also requires verification to ensure the assistance actually reaches those who are meant to receive aid, and that it is effective. Furthermore, independent organizations monitor the effective distribution of aid. None of the international donors used to accept a government like Burma’s military regime that tells them to only give money and materials and not to come to the country.

Now every day, people in Irrawaddy division as well as Rangoon and Bago divisions have to eat wet yellow rice prepared from grinding cyclone-hit paddy after it has been exposed. This type of rice is not healthy but people have to consume it because it is cheaper than the regime’s ration rice that costs 700 kyat a pyi (approximately 4 kg). This indicates that rice problems from Irrawaddy division have gradually spread to other states and divisions.

No matter what the military regime thinks of its own citizens, there are those who cannot turn a blind eye and turn away from the suffering for their people. They are private donors from various walks of lives. They have been collecting money, buying hand tractors and looking for paddy seeds for germination, and giving them to needy villages. Prominent comedian and director Zarganar was even busy purchasing tractors and looking for paddy seeds up until the night he was arrested by the regime.

The way the military regime currently deals with farming and agricultural problems in Irrawaddy division is terrible. Buffalo and cows are needed for cultivation so the regime forcibly buys them from other states and divisions for low prices. Money is needed so the regime collects it from villages and families on order. As for paddy seeds, the regime puts pressure onto farmers from other states and divisions.

Although news about the regime’s donations of hand tractors to farmers are often shown on TV none of the villages from any village has received them free of charge. Farmers have to pay for tractors by installment with interest. Furthermore, the regime still restricts international relief operations that would help ease farmers’ survival while working on cultivation.

In any case, it is certain that Burma’s rice production will be reduced in the coming rice collection season. Whether there is proper management by the military junta, the amount of international assistance received by farmers and the price of fuel will determine the size and the impact of the coming rice crisis.

Military authorities accused villagers of helping kidnappers now demand cash penalty

Villagers accused of helping kidnappers fined by Junta

The military authorities in Chin state in Burma have accused villagers of helping unknown Chin language-speaking assailants, who had earlier in the month kidnapped two villagers.

Captain Thang Cing Thang, Camp Commander of the military outpost of Light Infantry Battalion (20) stationed in Shinletwa village in Paletwa Township in southern Chin state has fined the villagers, who have been accused of supporting the kidnappers, Kyat 6,000,000 (US Dollar 5,000) in cash as penalty.

Moreover, the Captain also threatened to set fire to the whole village unless the villagers met his demands, a villager from Paletwa Township said.

"He (the Captain) came to our village and said that we must pay Kyat 6,000,000 as penalty for lending a hand to the kidnappers," a villager said.

On June 9, four unidentified gun men had kidnapped two villagers from Pawng Hmu village in Paletwa Township and demanded Kyat 7,000,000 ( US dollar 5,833) as ransom. One of the hostages is believed to be a nurse and the other is a student from Rangoon University.

The kidnappers kept the hostages for six days and then set them free after receiving a ransom of Kyat 2,000,000 (US dollar 1,666) from the Pawng Hmu villagers.

The kidnappers, who wielded guns, are believed to have used Chin language, while communicating with the villagers.

The military authorities targeted villagers from Ma U village as the unknown kidnappers were said to have used that village as a hideout for the kidnapping.

The Ma U villagers have no idea regarding how to garner the amount of money demanded by the military authority.

"We don't know where to find that much money when we are living in such a poor condition," another villager said. He also added that if the people were not in a condition to pay, they might have to flee from the village as another option.

Khonumthung - June 20, 2008.

Foreign monks help reconstruct school, after junta's cronies refuse

By Lyeh Mon, IMNA

20 Jun 2008, With a firm belonging to a henchman of the Burmese military junta refusing to rebuild a middle school in Rangoon devastated by Cyclone Nargis, a group of foreign monks have come forward to do the needful.

Although the Shwe Kabar Construction Company assured the school committee that it would rebuild the No.4 Middle School in Thinkankyunt, the firm failed to keep its promise given the high costs of reconstruction of three buildings.

Teachers told local journalists that the township school committee contacted the monk's group for funds for rebuilding.

"The construction company was just trying to appease the generals with the assurance to the school committee. After they realized that rebuilding costs would be high, they avoided it. But teachers are happy because they are getting support from the monks," a local journalist said.

Monks from Thailand, China, Singapore, Vietnam and interpreters went to the school last week and inspected the destroyed school building.

During the visit of the monks', journalists were barred from interviewing them and teachers were afraid to talk about it.

"Don't ask me so much, if I give wrong answers, my higher authorities will stop the rebuilding plan," a journalist quoted a teacher as saying.

The No.4 Middle School had four buildings of which three were destroyed by the cyclone in May. Because the military government ordered reopening of schools, the teachers are finding it difficult to take classes.

They divided the school time. Half the students are attending classes in the morning while the other half come in the evenings. The teachers are using a temple building near the school to take classes.

The Burmese military regime is sponsoring its crony companies, such as Htoo company, Shwe Kabar and other firms to rebuild schools, markets and other government department buildings in cyclone hit areas.

Mon state TOLD to send 70 water buffaloes and 27 men to cyclone hit delta


20 Jun 2008, Mon state authorities have been ordered to send 70 water buffaloes and 27 men to work in the cyclone hit Irrawaddy delta. The Mon state authorities are collecting the buffaloes and have ordered each Township Peace and Development Council (TPDC) to help in finding buffaloes.

According to a village headman, Thanpyuzayart TPDC held a meeting with the local village headman and secretary to collect funds for buying buffaloes and search for buffaloes.

"We have already asked two men from our township to go there," the headman said.

Mon state has already sent a number of cows to Irrawaddy delta. The authorities also collected money from the people to help cyclone victims.

Currently the military regime is trying to bring 6000 buffaloes from others states and divisions and it can only plough 15 percent of farm land inundated by water where mechanized tillers will not work, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) report on June 18. The FAO is urging foreign governments to immediately donate another 5,000 buffaloes.

FAO said USD 83 million is needed to help farmers recover. Its report said 52,000 farming families who are facing hunger and poverty. If they are not able to plant rice crops for the main November harvest they will starve.

FAO said USD 51 million is needed for a two-year rehabilitation plan to rebuild the finishing industry, re-plant destroyed mangrove swamps and replace around 120,000 farm animals. The delta grows an estimated 60 percent of the country's rice.

The junta said Cyclone Nargis killed more than 78,000 people while another 56,000 people are missing.

Junta forces villagers to build new army bases


20 Jun 2008 - Cornered by a Mon insurgent group, the Burma Army is taking it out on villagers. The Burmese Military Southeast Command has begun to formulate a new warfare strategy in southern Mon state, Burma after its troops clashed with a Mon insurgent group killing a Burma Army captain. It plans to build new army bases and for that the military tactical commander seized more than 200 acres of land and ordered villagers to pay and build the bases.

Military Tactical Commander Col Kyaw Myint issued an order when he inspected the area after the local Infantry Battalion No.31 Captain Thein Khet Hlaing and his troops were ambushed by Mon insurgents of the Monland Restoration Party (MRP) near Kabyar village, Khawzar sub-township, about 16 miles south of Ye town.

"He ordered setting up seven army bases in six villages along the motor road of Ye-Khawzar. Currently the military regime is building two new bases in our village. One is adjacent to the village and one is an artillery base on a small hill," a Yinye villager told IMNA.

"Our villages have been ordered to pay more because we have to build two bases," he added.

Each family in the six villages has been ordered to provide 20 bamboos, two poles and five roofing leaves to build the new bases. The army started building the new base since June 14.

Villagers in rotation are being forced to build houses for soldiers, fencing the base and cleaning bushes everyday.

Villagers in the area said the military also seized 33 acres of land for each base from the villagers without paying any compensation.

The bases are being set up in Singuu, Ywa Thit, Yinye, Yin Dein, Kabyar, and Hinthar Ywa Thit where Mon insurgents are trying to reinforce its army.

"Although our major Eein Dae was killed in the ambush, we will replace him with a new man. We intend to have more members and expand our movement," the MRP Chairman Col Pan Nyunt said

On June 10, MRP soldiers led by Eein Dae ambushed government troops led by Captain Thein Khet Hlaing. The captain and four soldiers were killed and MRP major Eein Dae and two soldiers died in the firefight.

MRP has been active in the area since 2001 after Col. Pan Nyunt split from the New Mon State Party (NMSP) which signed a cease-fire agreement with the Burmese junta almost 13 years ago.

Before the cease-fire NMSP controlled the area. The Mon community in the area lent support to the NMSP and the Mon insurgent movement.

In order to gain control of the area from the NMSP and Mon insurgents the junta started strategic warfare and launched military operations against the rebels since 1998.

Dozens of people have been killed on both sides and hundreds fled to Mon refuge camps on the Thai-Burma border even though the strongest Mon armed rebel group signed a cease-fire agreement for a political dialogue.

Junta plans to launch new lottery - desperate for revenue

Mizzima News

20 June 2008, Rangoon: The junta plans to launch a new lottery. The highest prize in the lottery will be Kyat 100 million. The launch is in August, said an official of the State Lottery Department on Friday.

"Planned since the end of the 2007-2008 fiscal year, it is still a secret," said the official, who requested not to be named.

Immediate publicity of such a move could lead to speculations and an upsurge in consumer prices and inflation, which the population has been suffering over several decades given the country's poor economy mismanaged by the military regime.

The new lottery scheme is not expected to result in an increase of the present price of buying a lottery coupon – Kyat 100, said the official, adding that the number of coupons issued has gradually swelled over 12 months.

He also said the increased number of coupons implied the government is in desperate need of revenue.

After the launch of the new lottery scheme, the regime is likely to take stronger action against lottery dealers who award extra cash to lottery winners, said a Rangoon-based dealer.

The new scheme could be another burden as the population is already involved in illegal gambling by two-or three-digit lottery dealers, who refer to the numbers arising daily in the Stock Exchange of Thailand (SET), a lottery observer said.

Change of guard in Burmese junta

Mizzima News

20 June 2008, New Delhi - In a change of guard, Burma's secretive military rulers have carried out a major reshuffle in the cabinet and in key positions held by its military commanders.

While the junta officially announced the reshuffle of its cabinet ministers, the change of guard in its military command and Bureau of Special Operations was not disclosed, as usual.

The junta's state-run radio and television on Friday announced that Major General Maung Maung Swe, who earlier held two posts, has been left with just one - Minister for handling Post-Cyclone Management, Resettlement. One of his earlier portfolios, Minister for Immigration and Population, was given to Maj. Gen. Saw Lwin.

Saw Lwin's earlier post, Minister of Industries (2), has been given to Commander-in-Chief of the Navy, Vice Admiral Soe Thein, a move viewed by observers as shunting him from power.

Meanwhile, the Burmese junta not surprisingly made several other changes among its military commanders, including promoting younger officers to commanders and pushing effective commanders into higher ranks. This, however, was not announced.

Sources in the military establishment said the junta has ordered the transfer of four of its key military commanders to positions at the Bureau of Special Operations (BSO).

The four commanders - Maj Gen Aung Than Htut, Commander of the Northeastern Military Command, Maj Gen Ohn Myint Commander of Northern Military Command, Maj Gen Min Aung Hlaing, and Maj Gen. Ko Ko Commander of Southern Military Command – were transferred to positions in the Bureau of Special Operations.

According to the source, among the retiring BSO officers are seniors like Junta's Joint Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces Gen. Thura Shwe Mann, who is number three in the junta's hierarchy.

The source said it was inconvenient for Shwe Mann to give orders to BSO officers, as they were senior to him.

Burma's military establishment has a total of five officers in its BSO. While Maj Gen Maung Bo, one of the five BSO officers was spared, the other four – Maj. Gen. Ye Myint, Maj. Gen. Aung Htwe, Maj. Gen. Kyaw Win, and Maj Gen. Khin Maung Thann - were made to retire, in order to make way for the newly transferred officers.

Sources said Brig. Gen. Kyaw Phyo, Commandant of General Staff College in Kalaw was promoted to Commander of Triangle Command, Brig. Gen. Yar Pyae, former Defence Services Medical Academy (DSMA) to Commandant of Eastern Command Commander, and Brig. Gen. Hla Min of the LID 11 has been promoted to Commander of Southern Command.

While Brig. Gen Soe Win commandant of General Staff College in Than Daung has been promoted to Northern Command Commander, Brig. Gen Win Myint of the Light Infantry Division (LID) 77 was promoted as Commander of Strategic Command, Rangoon Division, which is crucial for maintaining power.

The junta also switched two of its commanders' posts. Brig. Gen. Thaung Aye was transferred from Eastern to Western Command, while Brig. Gen. Maung Shein from Western to Northeastern Command.

Meanwhile, the junta also transferred Rangoon Commander Maj. Gen. Hla Htay Win to Chief Military Training, a post held by Lt. Gen Aung Htwe, who will now retire, sources said.

"Almost all commanders have been reshuffled, the only two who are not transferred are [Snr. Gen.] Than Shwe and [Vice Snr. Gen.] Maung Aye," the source in the military establishment said.