Myanmar - where fear, neglect and paranoia are costing lives

PUBLISHED : Friday, 16 May, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 16 May, 2008, 12:00am

True to form, military's checkpoints stop foreigners entering cyclone-hit delta

The regime's eyes were on us as soon as we boarded a ferry from Yangon. A sharp young man in jeans stood out from the crowd of city workers in traditional longyi. Leaning against the rail as the ferry struggled across the swollen Yangon River, he photographed us from afar before asking where we were headed.

Officially travelling as tourists, our small group of reporters kept to chit-chat and sidestepped his offers of 'assistance'. Whispered warnings from locals had alerted us to the risks of constant surveillance - all part of the climate of fear and suspicion now dogging both foreign and local relief efforts as Myanmar's junta keeps a vice-like grip on aid efforts.

We gave our man the slip as we walked through the crowds thronging Dala, the once-bustling port town facing Yangon. Now it barely functions, its warehouses left a twisted wreck of corrugated iron by Cyclone Nargis' 190km/h winds, and mighty century-old banyan trees knocked flat, their vast exposed roots pointing to the sky. Wrecked craft lined the banks and the masts of sunken ships jutted above the river's surface, now an extra hazard to a crippled port.

We tucked ourselves into an ex-army jeep, comfortably obscured by tarpaulins, and headed south. We wanted to witness the struggle to bring relief to a devastated land, knowing the death toll is still rising - two weeks after the cyclone struck. After 5km we sped round a bend, zipping past a concealed bamboo checkpoint. A series of shrill whistles stopped us in our tracks. First came the immigration officer, who demanded our passports, apologised, and told us we could go no further - even before checking our details.

Then came a police officer, whose mood reflected his appearance of just having been woken up. Then came the man identifying himself as 'Special Branch'. 'This is a special research area ... no foreigners allowed,' he said.

Our details were painstakingly recorded in triplicate. Each official wanted his own photograph of us. Each demanded we turn around.

We did - eventually. Taking a series of river boats and motorbikes, we discovered that while the junta's system of repression is in a state of heightened alert after the cyclone, its relief efforts are still fatally lacking in many areas, even close to Yangon.

The bamboo curtain that descended on us is the same one now thwarting the efforts of big international aid agencies that warn that the slow response and lack of outside expertise is forcing the death toll higher.

The scale of Nargis' devastation is hard to overestimate. Polling 22 organisations working inside Myanmar, the International Federation of the Red Cross estimates that between 68,833 and 127,990 people have died. Even that toll may soar as disease and hunger spreads, the agencies warn.

Yet the mounting international outrage - both UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and US President George W. Bush issued statements of concern this week - counts for little on the ground in the delta.

Travelling east from the checkpoint, we came across hungry children sheltering in a schoolhouse in the ruined village of Nyaung Gone. In stark contrast to the government's concerted efforts regarding security, just one local health worker was working to help 300 people - all families who had lost their homes.

Her eyes welling with tears, Thu Thu Miyant said she was struggling to cope as rice started to run out and disease spread among the children, abandoned for days as their starving parents scavenged for food.

'We've had only 10 bags of rice to spread among 300 people and it is going to run out soon,' Ms Miyant said. 'There is no meat, no fish, no vegetables ... only rice, and there is not even enough of that.

'Just look at the children, they are already getting sick ... some are coming down with diarrhoea and I know their nutrition is bad. I just don't know how I'll cope. I'm afraid people here will start dying soon as people get sicker and sicker.'

As she spoke, groups of children huddled inside from lingering rain and storms. Water dripped constantly from the ceiling onto a grubby concrete floor. Tired and listless, they sat on school desks pushed together to create makeshift beds. Clean water was also in short supply.

One girl gnawed on an empty yoghurt container, another constantly licked an empty spoon. Hundreds of flies buzzed around them, some children too weary to wave them away. Nearby rice paddies and canals were flooded and stagnating, strewn with the corpses of pigs and dogs. The houses of iron and rattan lay in ruins.

Villagers worked slowly to cut away the debris from their shattered homes and rebuild their lives without a sign of official help in the cleanup.

As abandoned and isolated as Nyaung Gone seems, it is little more than 15km as the crow flies from Yangon International Airport, where the aid is piling up as flights continue from arrive from countries including Thailand, China and the US. Major western aid agencies warn of deepening problems of distribution, as the junta seeks to assert the habitual control that has marked much of its unbroken five decade rule. Not only are logistics and technical experts kept from the delta, many are still being denied visas to enter the country.

A range of senior aid sources also warn of intensifying military harassment of local aid workers toiling on behalf of foreign agencies. Workers are being threatened, with military officials determined to control where aid is going - and at times seeking to obtain supplies themselves.

'The military leadership is starting to react entirely in character,' one Asian aid official said. 'That means complete control of all aspects of government ... and they will be the ones to manage the recovery in the nation's greatest hour of need.'

Reports are surfacing in Yangon of foreign supplies being diverted to military stores, where it is swapped for older or rotting commodities to be given to the needy.

Several aid agencies are also investigating internal reports that aid handed over to villagers in heavily publicised efforts was then taken back and shipped away once the cameras left. At the same time, investigations are continuing into reports that homeless survivors are being pressed into forced labour.

Farmers and fishermen desperate to rebuild shattered livelihoods are being forced to work on road building and public works projects, earning less than US$1 dollar a day.

'It is appalling what we are starting to hear,' said one western aid official. 'I now understand why they don't want us out there ... but it is not going to stop us. One way or another, we are going to get the aid to the right people. This is the greatest humanitarian challenge in years.'

The official mood - and paranoia - is summed up in the New Light of Myanmar newspaper, one of the junta's media mouthpieces.

Articles outline extensive efforts by junta planners to receive and move foreign aid and solve the crisis. At the same time, they give an apparently false sense of control and order. 'The nation does not need skilled relief workers yet,' Vice-Admiral Soe Thein stated in one piece.

Above the relief stories sits the daily propaganda headed 'People's Desire', demanding opposition to 'those relying on external elements, acting as stooges, holding negative views. Crush all internal and external destructive elements as the common enemy'.

Even internationally prominent aid officials, such as visiting World Vision Australia chief Tim Costello, are barred from leaving Yangon's city limits. 'It's obviously immensely frustrating that I'm still here,' he said from his hotel. 'We've been here 30 years. We have a formal memorandum of understanding with the government and the people love us ... yet we still can't get our foreign staff out to where their expertise and technical skills are needed most.

'We've got a good local staff, but they need support and assistance urgently ... they need outside expertise.

'Every hour counts given the scale of tragedy unfolding. I urge the government to open up to a full international humanitarian effort ... it is not a breach of national sovereignty.'

From what we saw in the delta, that is still a vain hope.