Saturday, May 31, 2008

The Burmese military and their lack of compassion!

The Burmese military are at it again! This latest seems to be par for the course, and a continuing indication that the country's leadership cares nothing for the ordinary people. Today's Sydney Morning Herald has news of the military forcing the cyclone victims out of the refugee places and back to their non-existent villages; places where there are no houses or food or medical supplies. This is all so heartless!

US slams Junta: SMH

The Burma military's obstruction of international aid after Cyclone Nargis came "at a cost of tens of thousands of lives", US Secretary of Defence Robert Gates said today.

"Our ships and aircraft awaited country approval so they could act promptly to save thousands of lives - approval of the kind granted by Indonesia immediately after the 2004 tsunami and by Bangladesh after a fierce cyclone just last November," Gates told a regional security forum in Singapore.

"With Burma, the situation has been very different - at a cost of tens of thousands of lives."

Meanwhile, earlier reports said Burma's military government appears to be reasserting its authority over cyclone relief operations. Aid officials say the junta has been forcing survivors out of refugee camps and hindering the access it had promised foreign aid workers.

A UN official said yesterday the government was making cyclone survivors leave camps and "dumping" them near their devastated villages with virtually no aid supplies.

Eight camps set up for homeless survivors in the Irrawaddy delta town of Bogalay were "totally empty" as the clear-out continued, said Teh Tai Ring of the United Nations Children's Fund - UNICEF - at a meeting of UN and private aid agency workers discussing water and sanitation issues.

"The government is moving people unannounced," he said, adding that authorities were "dumping people in the approximate location of the villages, basically with nothing".

After his statements were reported, UNICEF issued a statement saying the remarks referred to "unconfirmed reports by relief workers on the relocation of displaced people affected by" the May 2-3 storm.

In his remarks at the water experts' meeting, however, Teh said the information came from a relief worker who had just returned from the affected area and that "tears were shed" when he recounted his findings earlier in the day.

Separately, at a church in Rangoon, more than 400 cyclone victims from a delta township, Labutta, were evicted today following orders from authorities a day earlier.

"It was a scene of sadness, despair and pain," said a church official at the Karen Baptist Home Missions in Rangoon, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of official reprisal. "Those villagers lost their homes, their family members and the whole village was washed away. They have no home to go back to."

All the refuge-seekers except some pregnant women, two young children and those with severe illnesses, left the church in 11 trucks yesterday morning.

The authorities told church workers that the victims would first be taken to a government camp in Myaung Mya - a mostly undamaged town in the Irrawaddy delta - but it was not immediately clear when they would be resettled in their villages.

An estimated 2.4 million people remain homeless and hungry after the May 2-3 cyclone hit Burma. Burma's government says the cyclone killed 78,000 people and left another 56,000 missing.

Aid workers who have reached some of the remote villages say little remains that could sustain the former residents. Houses are destroyed, livestock have perished and food stocks have virtually run out. Medicine supplies are nonexistent.

Terje Skavdal, a senior UN official in Bangkok, Thailand, said he could not confirm the camp closures but that any such forced movement was "completely unacceptable".

"People need to be assisted in the settlements and satisfactory conditions need to created before they can return to their place of origins," Skavdal, head of the Asia-Pacific region's UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, told reporters. "Any forced or coerced movement of people is completely unacceptable."

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The cruelty of Burma's leaders

Unbelievably, Burma's leaders are unable to be compassionate toward their own people; and they prevent anyone who would render assistance.

Burma's beggars being forced off the roads: SMH
Police have begun clearing roads of thousands of cyclone survivors in Burma's Irrawaddy Delta whose desperation has reduced them to begging for food from passing cars.

Most of the 2.4 million people in need of food, shelter and medicine have yet to receive any international aid, according to the UN. Volunteers from Rangoon and other cities have been driving to villages to deliver aid themselves.

But police are warning volunteers against making donations, and have threatened to suspend their driving licences.

"Aid goods should be given out at relief centres only," one officer told a volunteer trying to give food to cyclone victims.

"The people should learn to feed themselves. They should return to their homes. We do not want foreigners to think we are a country of beggars."

Police say they are trying to ensure the safety of the crowds of people who are lining the region's few roads. Desperation has grown so intense that hundreds of people stampede every passing car.

Six foreign staff based in Rangoon with the UN children's fund, UNICEF, were allowed by the junta to join teams of mainly Burmese workers to assess the scale of the devastation from Cyclone Nargis, which left 133,000 dead or missing.

Other charities such as Doctors Without Borders were also sending foreign staff into the delta.

"We're very pleased that we've been able to get international colleagues out" into the delta, a UNICEF spokeswoman, Shantha Bloemen, said in Bangkok.

Police, soldiers and immigration officers have staged roadblocks to question foreigners on the main route from Rangoon into the devastated town of Dedaye in the delta, which bore the brunt of the cyclone.

Police in Rangoon also yesterday detained 15 members of Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy as they marched to her home ahead of the annual deadline for renewal of her house arrest.

The group was shoved into a truck by riot police after 30 of her party marched from their headquarters to Ms Suu Kyi's home, where she has been under house arrest for more than 12 of the past 18 years.

Security was stepped up around Ms Suu Kyi's home as the junta faced an annual deadline to decide whether to extend her current period of house arrest or release her. Most analysts expect her detention to be extended again this year.

The Indonesian Foreign Minister, Hassan Wirayuda, urged the junta to release Ms Suu Kyi, in light of the goodwill the world has shown in recent weeks. But in the aftermath of the cyclone, the anticipated extension has drawn little other international attention.
Agence France Presse, Associated Press, The New York Times

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Burma, breaking in and through

Though the higher ups have dug in their heels there are tales of extraordinary efforts being made by the "little people" (Burmese and expats) to help those devastated. Here's one such story from today's Sydney Morning Herald.
Pray for this beleaguered country and its people who have suffered so much trauma for so many decade.

Breaking through Burma's cruel wall of silence

Harry McKenzie* decided to crack the Burmese regime's Bamboo Curtain that bans foreign aid workers and journalists from the areas worst hit by the cyclone. He organised a truckload of food, hired a few locals and set off into the Irrawaddy delta. This is his story.

"DON'T worry about the dead bodies; the fish will eat them," a general in the Burmese junta was heard to say last week.

The general was being serious, it seems. Nearly a fortnight after Cyclone Nargis flung a tidal wave of salt water over the rice paddies of southern Burma, many bodies still float in the paddies, ignored and unclaimed, and hundreds of thousands of people are in dire need of food, fresh water and medicine.

Last week our secret aid truck penetrated the wall of secrecy the junta has thrown up around the Irrawaddy delta. The truck, packed with food bought by foreign donors, myself and locals, made it into Bogale, at the centre of the worst-hit area.

Thousands of people are living here in makeshift refugee camps, still desperate for food and medical help two weeks after the cyclone struck. These were people who had borne the unbearable, whose condition the Burmese military junta is desperate to shield from the outside world, and who it continues to refuse to help by allowing in foreign aid workers. Hundreds crowded around our little aid truck when it entered town last Thursday. They were crying and begging for food. "Me, me, give me food," shouted one man, who tried to drag off one of my aid workers.

My "NGO" - comprising four handpicked Rangoon "street kids" - worked through the night distributing parcels of food to surviving families in Bogale and surrounding villages. Villagers wept: "Please, please give us rice, soup, anything."

"People were begging on their hands and knees for a single packet of soup," a team member said. "Please don't leave us," cried a hungry young mother nursing her child. She had lost her husband, mother and three other family members.

Nearby, a parentless baby lay splayed on a concrete slab. Elsewhere, a wretched old man raged against the paranoid regime that had so cruelly abandoned his family: he had received no warning of the cyclone and lost most of his family in the tidal surge that killed at least 100,000 people and left 2.5 million in need of aid.

Save the Children and the UN estimate the death toll could now exceed 200,000 (the official Burmese Government figure is 78,000).

When food arrived last Thursday it caused a stampede, forcing local officials to padlock the gates to the Hindu temple, where 3000 were packed in.

Overhead, the thwump-thwump of a government helicopter tormented this living hell. Sent to "survey" the damage, the official choppers rarely land in the devastated areas. Our aid team travelled for two days in the delta and saw not a single government helicopter land.

Many in Bogale were too sick or exhausted to care. In a corner of the monastery, alone with her awful memories, sat a teenage girl. She stared blankly into space. She had lost seven members of her family. She survived the storm by clinging to a tree.

My idea started as a dream, and ended as an unlikely reality: to send a single truck of food, as a kind of Trojan Horse, into the delta to penetrate the worst-hit areas that were cut off from the world last week.

The Government has literally locked up Rangoon, blockaded the roads heading south and west, confining foreign aid workers and journalists to the city. Only locals were permitted into the disaster zone.

To make the plan work, I needed the right locals. The officials seemed to find the idea of a foreigner organising a private aid convoy a great old hoot. Major Tun even wondered whether he might take his fishing rod.

Further mobile calls yielded an official reply: No. "A boat is not possible," said one official. "Why not go by truck?"

Full circle. We agreed - a truck - and everyone relaxed.

It was 3pm on Wednesday; the plan was to leave at 5am the next day. We had two hours to buy food supplies before the markets closed. Rangoon central marketplace is a human hive of ramshackle little boxes of traders piled one on another.

But there is method in the madness, and Win had mastered the method.

Kumer waited in the truck outside as we negotiated with the traders. By 5pm we had bought six 20 kilogram bags of corn, three 40 kilogram bags of potatoes, 10 boxes of chicken noodle soup packets (about 1000 packets), 10 boxes of mosquito coils (500 coils) and 10 boxes of canned fish. Total price: 1,002,000 kyat (about $1040).

We met on the street at 5am the next day. The major, Win and I travelled in an old VW van - while Chi and Mug went with Kumer in the truck behind. We soon left the city and passed through wide rice paddies, still flooded, with smashed homes and villages on either side.

Within an hour we reached the first checkpoint. The youth at the gate, seeing Major Tun, sprang to attention, saluted, and waved us through. After surviving two more checkpoints we reached the large township of Kunyangon. We passed this, too, and it seemed I might reach the worst-hit area of the delta.

Then I noticed a motorcycle rider in an army uniform, who gestured for us to pull over. Major Tun's smile froze; I looked forward to watching the motorcyclist get a severe dressing down.

Alas, it was Tun who got the dressing down, for taking a foreigner into a restricted area. The soldiers inspected my passport and confined me to the van with curtains drawn. The team was interviewed by a senior army officer: where were we headed? Bogale. Why? To feed some people. With whose aid? Mr Harry's. On behalf of which NGO? None, this was Mr Harry's private initiative.

We were forced to turn around; the foreigner - me - was not allowed to proceed.

"Look, why don't I hide under the tarp in the back of the truck?" I suggested a little way back down the road.

"No, very, very dangerous," Win said. "They shoot you - maybe."

"OK," I said, "you blokes go to Bogale and the major and I will return to Rangoon."

It was agreed: Win, Chi, Mug and Kumer turned back to Bogale in the truck. I slipped them my camera and recorder, which Win rammed into his underpants.

That was how half our convoy made it into Bogale.

The team looked distraught on its return on Friday. They described the little truck's arrival in the stricken town.

"Mr Harry … Bogale is totally broken, broken, broken," Win said. "Every home is broken. There are 130,000 dead in the area. The villages have no electricity, no lights, no lunch, no dinner, no hope. The people are broken."

But he couldn't go on. He lay his head on the table and wept. Mr Chi wept too: "It is everywhere," Chi said furiously. "Bogale just one place. This f---ing government."

Win raised his head, still in tears: " … so many children and babies naked and crying. So many naked. I gave the people my shirt. They are my people."

Both men gave their shirts to the people.

As they wept I looked at Win's photos, taken at great risk. They revealed the scale of the horror: families wiped out; broken legs and arms, unset; babies sleeping on banana leaves in mud.

"The Government has given nothing," Chi stressed.

"We saw no government aid. We saw no UN or NGOs, and very few medicines. It was mostly private donations - by local businessmen - or from China."

"My heart is crying," Win said. "So many people crowded around us, crying, 'Please, please. Please help us."'

It is a portrait borne out by local and foreign aid workers. UNICEF said it feared a cholera epidemic from drinking bad water directly from rivers polluted with human excrement, bodies and dead animals.

"The water in the whole area is contaminated," one official said.

By Friday, UNICEF had sent 100,000 oral rehydration solutions, many more essential drugs, tarpaulins and bleaching powder (to purify water in wells). But the official conceded this was way too little; 2.5 million people were in dire need.

"I'm always thinking of how we can mobilise resources. But we can't bring in foreign workers."

UNICEF employs only 130 locals in Burma.

The biggest fear is cholera. Such an epidemic would kill millions without modern treatment and experienced doctors, whom the junta refuses to allow into the area.

A UNICEF official said: "Normal preventative medicines will limit deaths to 2 per cent of a stricken population; but without help, as in the Irrawaddy delta, the numbers killed will be at least 50 per cent."

Malaria, tetanus and measles were spreading last week; and typhus may also be a big concern. The UN is organising fumigation teams to spray the malaria-carrying mosquitoes, but few teams have been allowed into the area.

To help the 300,000 most in need would involve 10 times the current relief effort, one foreign official said.

"Otherwise tens of thousands will die in the next few weeks. The death toll may double."

A spokesman for Medecins Sans Frontieres in Rangoon said: "We're equipped to deal with 25,000 people, but if there's a massive outbreak of infectious diseases we wouldn't be able to cope at our present level of readiness. On the ground people are breaking down; our translator was crying when he returned."

MSF has just flown in psychologists to counsel their local staff.

Meanwhile, tens of thousands of cyclone survivors have been forcibly moved into refugee areas, in the towns of Laputta, Pyapan, Bogale and Pathein, where they sit in temporary camps set up by the Burmese Army. In Laputta and surrounding villages the official death toll is 26,000.

One reason little aid is getting through is that so few experienced people are on the ground to distribute it. In the absence of foreign aid workers and so few locals, the junta has delegated responsibility for distributing foreign aid to local business tycoons. They include:

■ Te Zay, a top crony in the economic wing of General Than Shwe's regime, and head of HT00 Trading Company, the local airline and several construction businesses. Te Zay, also an arms dealer, heads the US sanctions list for Burma;

■ Steve Law, the son of a drugs baron and owner of Asia World, a local business with sharemarket and construction interests;

■ Serge Pun, the head of the local conglomerate FMI.

No doubt these men are doing their best to help, one official said, but foreign NGOs say the business leaders have no experience of massive disaster relief.

And, of course, corruption is never far away. One business leader used his private aid fiefdom for a photo opportunity showing him handing out DVDs and TVs to flooded villages with no electricity. Others were branding packets of foreign aid with their own corporate logos and filming themselves handing it out, as a publicity stunt.

Most aid goes straight to the Government or the army. The US is sending four plane-loads a day, all of which goes to the junta. Not surprisingly, bags of aid designated for the desperate south are showing up in the street markets of Rangoon.

Many foreign governments now see the regime's inability to deal with the crisis as a man-made catastrophe. The British Opposition Leader, David Cameron, has described it as a crime against humanity.

Nothing will change before Saturday, when the worst hit areas will be forced to participate in the second stage of a referendum on whether Burma should adopt a new "democratic constitution".

Few Burmese have the will to resist and vote "no", though most people affected by the cyclone feel extreme anger towards the regime. In the first round of voting an absurd 98 per cent were said to have voted "yes".

People had little choice: they were threatened with the confiscation of their crucial ID cards or bank books if they voted "no". In many villages the local chief simply requisitioned all ID cards, and ticked "yes".

Amid the chaos and sadness, one voice has been forced to stay silent: Aung San Suu Kyi. A Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and the symbol of democratic opposition, Suu Kyi remains under house arrest.

Her spirit seems to hover over the madness and tragedy of Burma, where the great courage and care of local people such as Win and Chi will prove helpless before this encircling nightmare of the junta's making.

* Harry McKenzie is not the writer's real name.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Burma, the drama and pain continue

The farce in Burma continues... The generals claim that the first phase of recovery is over and now they are moving onto reconstruction... and it's reconstruction on their terms as they take the land for their own purposes, like building a new naval base. They don't give a damn about the people! They want them to die, to be gone. How sick can a leadership be?

No wonder Tim Costello is discouraged!

Tim Costello dejected over inability to help in Burma (SMH):

TIM COSTELLO has dealt with devastation before. He has stood among the ruins of people's homes and lives, and bodies rotting in the streets.

But in Burma, while suffering in the wake of Cyclone Nargis was all around, it was a sense of frustration at being unable to help that overwhelmed the World Vision Australia chief.

In his first interview since returning to Melbourne on Saturday, Mr Costello broke down yesterday as he detailed the infuriating hurdles he faced in a country that seemed more focused on its elections than saving the lives of its people.

After flying in to the country's south with one of the few visas granted to foreigners on May 8 he was granted an audience with a general in Rangoon until two days later.

Mr Costello said he worked hard to prove he was not a "foreign saboteur". "We told [the general] we had come to ask for a letter to give us access through road blocks, the ability to distribute aid ourselves rather than through the military and permission for one of our planes to leave Dubai. He agreed to the first two."

The letter gave World Vision unrestricted access to deliver materials such as blankets and rice. But it was not enough.

Foreign aid workers from across the world continued to remain on standby yesterday as contaminated water threatened the health of thousands who have remarkably survived to this point.

Mr Costello broke down as he described the guilt of returning home.

"It's knowing what could have been done," he said. "This is the frustration. Even though it's not in your control and it's inappropriate and neurotic, you still feel it."

After praising the Government's $25 million aid commitment to Burma, Mr Costello said he was concerned about the impact of the junta's resistance to donors.

"Australians have not given," he said. "It would be interesting to compare the figures to China after they opened up, responded fast, allowed helicopters and journalists in, the whole lot.

"There is deep, deep cynicism in the donor public in Australia. They think … it's going into the Government's pockets, they're not getting the money. In truth, not a cent of our aid is going to the military.

"Getting that message through is very difficult … But we must not give up on them. They did not choose their government."

Julia Medew
May 19, 2008

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Keep the pressure up on the Burmese Junta!!

The quake in China is a disaster of huge proportions... so many dead, so many trapped, so many injured and so many missing. Yet the Chinese govt's response has been swift to provide all the help and aid needed.

What a contrast to the Burmese govt's response to the disaster in their own land. Many many thousands are in danger of dying from disease, starvation, thirst, and neglect. What agonising traumas are being visited upon the little people of the land! The ruling generals don't seem to care one little bit... except to keep control and oppress and depress their own peoples.

World govts, and the media ... keep the pressure up on these paranoid self-serving holders-onto-power-at-any-cost group of leaders
They are so out of touch with reality, it's laughable ... if it weren't so tragic.

How about ignoring the generals? Fly directly to the affected areas. Drop the needed supplies. Forget the permissions and visas and regulation. Save the people...

Save the poor and suffering! Do it now!

Burma's bizarre behaviour...

It is so hard to comprehend the totally bizarre behaviour by the Burmese military and leadership!

Today's Sydney Morning Herald reports has the story of the Burmese military stopping locals from helping those suffering from the cyclone's devastation. How bizarre can things get in that suffering country?
Army stops locals trying to give aid
MA NGAY GYI, BURMA: When one of Burma's best-known movie stars, KyawThu, travelled through the Irrawaddy Delta in recent days to deliver aid to the victims of the May 3 cyclone, a military patrol stopped him as he was handing out bags of rice.

"The officer told him, 'You cannot give directly to the people,"' said Tin Win, the village headman of the stricken city of Dedaye, who had been counting on the rice to feed 260 refugees who sleep in a large Buddhist prayer hall.

The politics of food aid - deciding who gets to deliver assistance to the homeless and hungry - is not just confined to the dispute between Burma's military junta and Western governments and outside relief agencies.

Even Burmese citizens who want to donate rice or other assistance have in several cases been told that all aid must be channelled through the military. This restriction has angered local officials such as Tin Win who are trying to help rebuild the lives of villagers. He twitched with rage as he described the rice the military gave him.

"They gave us four bags," he said. "The rice is rotten - even the pigs and dogs wouldn't eat it."

He said the UN High Commissioner for Refugees had delivered good rice to the local military leaders last week but they kept it for themselves and distributed the waterlogged, musty rice. ...

SMH 13 May 2008

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Seen in Laos

Seen in Laos
Originally uploaded by bhojman
Just had a few weeks in Thailand and spent most of the time up in Mae Sai. We went over to the Golden Triangle for a look see... then rented a boat to go across to Laos, at least to an island that's on Lao territory. It's really a place for tourists to spend money.
It was not all that enjoyable as it was hot and very muggy and I found the island to be quite oppressive...
Many stalls had bottles of pickled snakes and scorpions and other nasties... I believe they are bottles of liquor which can be drunk. I suppose some people find them appetising but I'm not one of them.
I was glad to leave and get back to the Thai side.
I was especially glad to get back to Mae Sai and the coolness of my friend's house.