Myanmar, Pariah

The latest development in the media reporting is not on who is giving how much and doing what, instead it is that the Burmese junta is keeping out foreign aid. Burma-bashing again by the media especially the “Western” ones, but who can blame them for headlining news worthy stories? The Burma junta is some serious pariah state by all accounts. I bet aid is slowly trickling in because the junta wants to transfer the food etc from UN packaging into a local bundles and packages with SPDC logos. This elaborate show is to make the Burmese believe that aid is from the junta and not from the international community when food etc is unloaded off the truck. That also explains why no foreign aid groups are allowed in to help in the distribution.

What is with this junta that fears the world? North Korea as far as I know takes in any aid it can get. With Taepodong and nuclear arms come confidence in accepting aid it seems. The moment Burma takes in foreign aid greedily, then it means they are up to something nuclear!

International Herald Tribune
Myanmar blocking most cyclone aid
Sunday, May 11, 2008

YANGON, Myanmar: A trickle of aid shipments arrived in Myanmar on Sunday, more than a week after a powerful cyclone smashed the country, but officials continued to bar major shipments to more than a million of the storm’s hard-hit survivors.

The junta is refusing to grant entry to foreign aid workers, who relief officials say are crucial to preventing more deaths from disease among an estimated 1.5 million victims of the May 3 storm.

The United Nations World Food Program said that only one visa had been approved out of 16 it had requested and the aid group World Vision said it had requested 20 visas but received two.

At Yangon’s port, shipments of rice were being loaded onto two freighters bound for Malaysia and Singapore, apparently as part of a pre-existing contract. Nearby, another ship was being loaded with rice bound for the Irrawaddy Delta, which bore the brunt of the storm.

Some water and electricity had been restored by Sunday in Yangon, the country’s financial capital, but prices for rice and fuel had increased sharply, along with prices for candles while the power was out.

As aid shipments continued Sunday, a spokesman for the World Food Program, Paul Risley, said it amounted to about one-tenth of what was needed, in addition to a major logistical operation.

The World Food Program said the authorities had released 38 tons of high-energy biscuits it had confiscated on Friday and that 4.4 tons of biscuits had been delivered Sunday.

The International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies said that three of its aircraft delivered 14 tons of shelter materials.

The United States was preparing to send in its first aircraft with relief supplies on Monday.

Reuters reported Sunday that state-run Myanmar TV had said that the death toll had risen to 28,458, with 33,416 people missing.

But the focus for the military junta this weekend was on a referendum for a constitution that is intended to perpetuate military rule. Residents said the vote followed a campaign of coercion mixed with propaganda.

The military appeared to have diverted some resources from helping cyclone victims to the overseeing the voting, which was held in all but the hardest hit areas. A resident of Yangon said by telephone that refugees who had sought shelter in schoolhouses had been evicted so the sites could be used as polling places. She said refugees had also been evicted from other buildings.

In Datgyigone, 55 kilometers, or 35 miles, north of Yangon, a precinct captain laughed when asked if he thought most people would vote for the constitution. “Everyone will vote yes,” he said. “Of course yes. Hundred percent.”

But he said that most voters had no idea what they were voting for, and that neither he nor most people he knew had actually read the proposed constitution. “The government says vote, so we vote,” he said with a shrug. He spoke openly, but, fearing retribution, asked that his name not be used.

Most villagers, when asked about their votes, said nothing. A man selling batteries, combs and flip-flops from a small pushcart hurried off when he was asked about the referendum. “I cannot speak about this,” he said over his shoulder. “I’m afraid.”

There were a number of reports of “pre-balloting,” in which employees of enterprises or government offices were required to vote ahead of time under the eye of their supervisors.

The product of a 14-year stop-and-start convention, the referendum is intended to lead to a multiparty election and a nominally civilian government. But it allots 25 percent of parliamentary seats to the military, gives it control of important ministries and allows it to seize control in a time of “emergency.” It also would bar Aung San Suu Kyi, the opposition leader whose party won a general election in 1990, from public office. She has been under house arrest for 12 of the last 18 years.

No police presence was obvious in Datgyigone or at a dozen other polling stations during the day.

No preliminary results had been announced by late Sunday, but the state-run media said the voting had proceeded without incident. The front page of the government newspaper, The New Light of Myanmar, on Sunday carried photographs of General Than Shwe, the leader of the junta, voting with his wife, Kyaing Kyaing.

Thousands of soldiers were on the roads Saturday, using axes, machetes and two-handled cross-cut saws to clear trees from towns and roads.

Small groups of residents in Yangon banded together to distribute aid, but one said the authorities sometimes confiscated their supplies. They said some victims had taken shelter in Buddhist monasteries, which had been targets of the military when it suppressed the protests led by monks in September.

Relief officials warned of an epidemic of cholera and said there was generally a 10-day window after a disaster before the death rate rose steeply.

Health officials are concerned about the potential for cholera, typhoid and dysentery, which can be spread by contaminated water and food. Severe diarrhea can be rapidly fatal, especially in children, and clean water and rehydrating solutions must be made available quickly to save lives.

While the generals were getting out the vote and relief workers were stranded abroad waiting for visas, the local staffs of international agencies were struggling with a disaster far beyond their capacities.

With limited stockpiled supplies and without the huge infrastructure needed for a relief operation of such a size, they were doing what they could, meeting each day to coordinate their work.

Unicef has one of the largest staffs in place, with 130 local workers and 17 foreigners. The World Food Program has 200 Burmese on staff and 15 foreigners. Some other staffs are tiny.

The first priorities are gathering stockpiled disaster relief food from around the country and mapping the affected areas to determine what is needed, said Shantha Bloemen, a spokeswoman for Unicef in Bangkok.

At the same time, Bloemen said, Unicef is shopping at the local market for things like tarpaulins, plates and first aid supplies. “The local markets are probably now depleted,” she said.

Once the emergency of food, water, shelter and medical care are addressed, the second emergency arrives, the rebuilding of lives and livelihoods.

The building blocks are rice, livestock and fisheries, said Diderik de Vleeschauwer, a spokesman for the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization.

Two experts are in the field, testing the salinity of the soil, the damage to rice stocks, the state of irrigation systems and the possibilities for draining vast pools of seawater deposited by the storm.

Many fishing boats were probably lost, leaving survivors with no livelihood. Large numbers of animals probably died in a region that raises 40 percent of the nation’s livestock.

The effects of the cyclone will be felt for years.

“This is the food basket of the whole country,” De Vleeschauwer said, “so damage to the crops and livestock and fisheries may affect seriously the food security situation of the entire country.”

This article is by a reporter for The International Herald Tribune in Myanmar and Seth Mydans in Bangkok. Warren Hoge and Denise Grady contributed reporting from New York.


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