Over the past week, they said, the door has opened slightly and a number of foreign experts have been allowed to travel to the Irrawaddy Delta, which bore the brunt of the May 3 storm. A modest flow of food, medicine and other supplies has begun to enter the delta by truck and barge.
But the agencies said that travel permits for international experts were limited and irregular and that dozens of relief workers remained stranded in the country’s main city, Yangon.
“Several have been able to make essentially day trips to work with our field staff there,” Paul Risley, a spokesman for theUnited Nations World Food Program, said. “But access remains a continuing challenge.”
A spokesman for the United Nations disaster relief agency said on Monday that as of two days before, 15 foreign experts representing United Nations agencies were in the delta.
Analysts of Myanmar, formerly Burma, said they feared that the junta was playing a game of hints, promises and deception, which it has used over the years to deflect criticism from abroad.
“In all these crises that the Burmese face, there always is the teaser to take the pressure off the government,” said Josef Silverstein, an expert on Myanmar atRutgers University.
“They seem like they are going to cooperate, and just as soon as comment dies down, anything that is going to be useful dies with it,” he said. “Look back at the ‘saffron revolution,’ when they made all kinds of promises about what they were going to do and nothing happened.”
He was referring to a peaceful uprising, led by monks, that was crushed in September. The junta’s promises included a dialogue with the democracy leaderDaw Aung San Suu Kyi, but Myanmar’s rulers dropped the idea after international attention had moved on, and last Tuesday it extended her house arrest for a year.
In Geneva, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights,Louise Arbour, who is leaving her position, said the world’s failure to press Myanmar more strongly on human rights issues made it easier for the junta to keep out cyclone relief.
“The obstruction to the deployment of such assistance illustrates the invidious effects of longstanding international tolerance for human rights violations,” she said.
The United Nations estimates that 2.4 million people were severely affected by the cyclone and said last week that 1.4 million of those remained in desperate need of food, clean water, shelter and medical care. The government says 134,000 people died or are missing.
International relief agencies have complained strenuously that the junta is barring foreign aid and foreign relief workers from the worst-affected areas and that it is endangering survivors.
After a 10-day delay, the junta allowed the first of 10 helicopters from the World Food Program to carry supplies from Yangon into the delta. The other nine were en route to Myanmar, Mr. Risley said.
He also said barges and smaller craft were delivering supplies to hard-hit areas.
The government has allowed American aircraft to land with relief materials but has barred American workers from leaving Yangon Airport to deliver them. It has turned away American, French and British ships loaded with supplies.
Some news reports from Myanmar have said the junta was beginning to force survivors out of shelters and back to the devastated countryside.
According to the independent groupHuman Rights Watch, thousands of displaced people have been evicted from schools, monasteries and public buildings.
“The forced evictions are part of government efforts to demonstrate that the emergency relief period is over and that the affected population is capable of rebuilding their lives without foreign assistance,” the organization said on Saturday.
Anupama Rao Singh, regional director ofUnicef, warned after a visit to the Irrawaddy Delta that any resettlement would be premature, even if it was voluntary.
“Many of the villages remain inundated with water, making it difficult to rebuild,” she said. “There is also a real risk that once they are resettled, they will be invisible to aid workers. Without support and continued service to those affected, there is a risk of a second wave of disease and devastation.”
The government of Myanmar also said it would reopen schools with the start of the new term this week, though many school buildings were destroyed and many teachers were swept to their deaths. Unicef said that more than 4,000 schools serving 1.1 million children were damaged or destroyed by the storm and that more than 100 teachers were killed.
“I think the generals are doing what they do best, taking charge of everything, trying to keep themselves in complete control,” said U Aung Naing Oo, a Burmese political analyst who lives in Thailand.
Trucks of rice, beans, onions, clothes, tarpaulins and cooking utensils, donated from all over Myanmar, pulled into his International Buddhist Missionary Center in Yangon from early morning on. Each day, shortly after dawn, a convoy of trucks or a barge on the Yangon River departs for the delta, loaded with relief supplies and volunteers.
Sitagu Sayadaw sat on a wooden bench in his field headquarters as people lined up to pay their respects. Villagers came to present lists of their most urgent needs. Monks from outlying villages came asking for help to repair their temples. Wealthy families from towns knelt before him and donated bundles of cash.
However, like other senior monks here, he must strike a careful balance. He has the moral duty to speak out on behalf of his suffering people, but in order to protect his social programs and hospitals, which provide free medical care to the destitute, he must try not to anger the government, which views such private undertakings as a reproof.
Nonetheless, speaking at his shelter as an afternoon monsoon rain drummed against the roof, Sitagu Sayadaw sounded frustrated with the government.
“In my country, I cannot see a real political leader,” he said.
“Gen. Than Shwe’s ‘Burmese way to democracy?’ ” he said, referring to the junta’s top leader. “What is it?”
He defended the monks’ uprising last September, saying the government’s failure to provide “material stability” for the people undermined the monks’ ability to provide “spiritual stability.”
Among monks interviewed in the delta and Yangon, there was no sign of imminent protests.
Still, a 40-year-old monk at Sitagu Sayadaw’s camp who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of official retribution said that “monks are very angry” about the government’s recent move to evict refugees from monasteries, roadside huts and other temporary shelters, even while the state-run media are filled with stories of government relief efforts. “The government doesn’t want to show the truth.”
A young monk in the Chaukhtatgyi Paya monastery district in Yangon predicted trouble ahead. “You will see it again because everyone is angry and everyone is jobless,” said the monk, who said he joined the September “saffron revolution” and had a large gash over his right eye from a soldier’s beating to show for it.
A monk from Mon State in southern Myanmar, who was visiting the delta to assess the damage and arrange an aid shipment, said, “For the government, these people are no more than dead animals in the fields.”
The simmering confrontation between the pillars of Myanmar life was evident at the village level after the cyclone.
Shortly after the storm, a monk in Myo Thit, a village 20 miles from Yangon, walked around with a loudspeaker inviting victims to his monastery and asking people to donate. The monk had to stop, villagers said, after a township leader affiliated with the government threatened to confiscate the loudspeaker.
Irrawaddy Special Report
One Month after Cyclone Nargis
|By AUNG THET WINE / LAPUTTA||Wednesday, June 4, 2008|
Just as relief efforts were beginning to take hold in Laputta—although
serious problems still exist—the Burmese authorities have forced tens of
thousands of refugees to return to their home villages.
Based on numbers provided by local officials, as many as 30,000 refugees were sent back to the area of their homes during the past week. Of the estimated 40,000 refugees that lived in Laputta previously, only about 10,000 remain.
Reports also indicate that drinking water, food and other relief material are beginning to reach some refugees who have been sent back to their villages.
Many refugees are now returning to Laputta to pick up food and other relief aid from international agencies located there. Many refugees also are receiving diesel fuel to power vehicles or boats. However, many refugees lack transportation to return for relief supplies.
Serious logistical problems remain in terms of distribution drinking water, food and survival material to refugees in more rural areas. Local doctors report many people are suffering from diseases such as diarrhea and malaria, and many others have psychological problems.
Medical doctors in Laputta said sending the refugees back to their home villages so quickly was a misguided policy, denying them badly needed relief supplies and medical services.
Local Laputta authorities ordered about 40,000 refugees living in 49 temporary shelters, including camps at Thakya Mara Zein Pagoda, No 1 and No 2 State High Schools, and other temporary shelter sites, to move to shelter camps on the outskirts of town, called Three-mile camp on Laputta-Myaung Mya Road, locally known as the golf course; Five-mile camp and the Yantana Dipa Sport Ground camp.
During the past week, Laputta, authorities transported tens of thousands of refugees back to their home villages, most of which are destroyed or badly damaged. The refugees were transported on a daily basis by private companies that have been awarded reconstruction contracts. The companies include Ayer Shwe Wah, Max Myanmar, War War Win and Zay Kabar companies.
"Until May 18, there were about 40,000 refugees in total in camps in Laputta. Starting on May 20, they were sent to camps situated out of town and since then most refugees have been returned to their home areas," said an officer of the Laputta Township PDC, who asked that his name not be disclosed.
“There are now about 650 families from 22 cyclone-affected villages living at the Yadanar Dipa Sport Ground,” he said. “The camp population is 2,609. The camp population at Three-mile and Five-mile camps now totals about 10,000. The figures are not constant, and the refugees are being sent back daily."
Refugees in the camps on the outskirts of Laputta are provided with tents and other shelter material donated by the governments of Britain, Japan and international aid agencies. They have access to safe drinking water from distilling machines. Food is distributed by the UN World Food Program (WFP), UNICEF, and nongovernmental organizations, including the Adventist Development and Relief Agency Myanmar [Burma] (Adra-Myanmar) and other organizations.
"For rice, we receive a sack of rice for four families for three days, which is from the WFP,” said a refugee at Three-mile Camp. “The rice is good to eat. The government also provides some rice. One person receives two tins (measured in a condensed milk tin) of rice for three days. We also receive cooking oil, salt and beans from other organizations. For drinking water and water for other use, we can collect it from the distilling machines set up at the front of the camp."
Camp refugees now have regular access to health care at medical clinics operated by Holland-MSF, Marlin, Malteser International, UN agencies, the Myanmar Medical Association and the Burmese Ministry of Health. Diarrhea and other diseases are minimal in the camps, sources said.
However, many refugees already sent back to their villages are living under very different and difficult conditions.
“They don't get proper assistance for food, drinking water and shelter and no health care is available to them,” said a doctor with an international health agency in Laputta.
“Many of them are suffering from diseases such as diarrheas, malaria, typhoid, hepatitis, plus psychological distress and depression.”
"When I went out to villages, I found some cases of diarrhea and typhoid. I see six or seven patients out of maybe 60 villagers. Some suffer from hepatitis, jaundice, pneumonia and malaria. Most of these diseases are caused by lack of safe water."
Many refugees are suffering from depression, he said, and mental health specialists have yet to arrive in Laputta.
He criticized the forced return of refugees to their villages.
"It is certain these refugees will contract some diseases by sending them back without proper preparation,” he said. “It’s also impossible for health services to access all these villages. What we can try to do is just contain diseases to prevent an epidemic."
When the refugees were returned to their villages, the authorities provided them with a sack of rice, a tin of cooking oil and 20,000 kyats ($16).
A family of refugees at the jetty in Laputta who were on their way back to Gway Chaung village in the Yway village tract said they were required to sign a consent form saying they were voluntarily repatriated.
"They asked us repeatedly to go back,” said the man. “They told us repeatedly to work our way out of a beggar-like life by relying on donations and food from others.”
A refugee living at the Yadanar Dipa Sport Ground said they were told that if they returned home they would not be accepted back in a shelter camp. He said he was returning to his village, Thin Gan Gyi.
A 60-year-old man at Three-mile Camp said he wanted to return home, but he worried about how he would eat. He had no other option if the authorities forcibly evicted him, he said.
A UNICEF officer in Laputta said repatriated refugees face renewed problems of safe drinking water and adequate food and other supplies. They are told to return to contact UN organizations and other relief agencies for assistance, he said.
"We are receiving representatives from villages,” he said. “They tell us their needs and problems such as lack of drinking water, lack of rice, and ask us to provide pumps to take the salt water from the drinking ponds. They need to make the ponds ready to receive fresh rain water.
A WFP supervisor said, “We are now getting more than 20 representatives a day from various villages. They get some drinking water, rice sacks and diesel for boats, as much as they can carry when they go back. Some villagers are coming to us almost daily."
Staff with the UN and international organizations worry that only a limited number of returned refugees are making contact with relief agencies, since many don’t have adequate transportation. Likewise, relief organizations don’t have adequate transportation to reach the villagers.
Compounding the problem is the monsoon season, which begins this month.
Sources note that villagers reach out to UN agencies and international organizations, and they hardly share their needs or complaints with local Burmese authorities.
For example, a representative from the Pyin Salu Sub-township was in Laputta specifically to ask for a water-pump from the Adra-Myanmar [Burma] agency to reconstruct a water reservoir pond for drinking water. His village received just enough drinking water and people relied on seawater for cooking and other purposes.
A village representative from Hlwa Sar village who was receiving relief supplies from the WFP in Laputta on May 31, told The Irrawaddy, "Almost all of the storm survivors believe in the UN and other international agencies. They don't go to our authorities. The main reason is we don’t trust them."
Monks Succeed in Cyclone Relief as Junta Falters
KUN WAN, Myanmar — They paddle for hours on the stormy river, or carry their sick parents on their backs through the mud and rain, traveling for miles to reach the one source of help they can rely on: Buddhist monks.
At a makeshift clinic in this village near Bogale, an Irrawaddy Delta town 75 miles southwest of Yangon, hundreds of villagers left destitute by Cyclone Nargis arrive each day seeking the assistance they have not received from the government or international aid workers.
Since the cyclone, the Burmese have been growing even closer to the monks while their alienation from the junta grows. This development bodes ill for the government, which brutally cracked down on thousands of monks who took to the streets last September appealing to the ruling generals to improve conditions for the people.
The May 3 cyclone left more than 134,000 dead or missing and 2.4 million survivors grappling with hunger and homelessness. This week, some of them who had taken shelter at monasteries or gathered on roadsides were being displaced again, this time by the junta, which wants them to stop being an embarrassment to the government and return to their villages “for reconstruction.” On Friday, United Nations officials said that refugees were also being evicted from government-run camps.
The survivors have little left of their homes and find themselves almost as exposed to the elements as their mud-coated water buffaloes. Meanwhile, outside aid is slow to arrive, with foreign aid agencies gaining only incremental access to the hard-hit Irrawaddy Delta and the government impounding cars of some private Burmese donors.
In a scene the ruling generals are unlikely to see played out for themselves, a convoy of trucks carrying relief supplies, led by Buddhist monks, passed through storm-devastated villages in the delta this week. Hungry children and homeless mothers bowed in supplication and respect.
“When I see those people, I want to cry,” said Sitagu Sayadaw, 71, one of Myanmar’s most respected senior monks.
Village after storm-hit village, it is clear who has won people’s hearts. Monks were among those who died in the storm. Now, others console the survivors while sharing their muddy squalor.
With tears welling in her eyes, Thi Dar, 45, pressed her hands together in respect before the first monk she saw at the clinic here and told her story. The eight other members of her family were killed in the cyclone. She no longer had anyone to talk with and felt suicidal. The other day, word reached her village that a monk had opened a clinic six miles upriver. So on Thursday, she got up early and caught the first boat.
“In my entire life, I have never seen a hospital,” she said. “So I came to the monk. I don’t know where the government office is. I can’t buy anything in the market because I lost everything to the cyclone.”
Nay Lin, 36, a volunteer doctor at the clinic, one of the six emergency clinic shelters Sitagu Sayadaw has opened in the delta, said: “Our patients suffer from infected wounds, abdominal pains and vomiting. They also need counseling for mental trauma, anxiety and depression.”
While the government has been criticized for obstructing the relief effort, the Buddhist monastery, the traditional center of moral authority in most villages here, proved to be the one institution people could rely on for help.
The monasteries in the delta that are still standing have been clogged with refugees. People who could help went there with donations or as volunteers. Monasteries that served as religious centers, orphanages and homes for the elderly have also become shelters for the homeless.
The interdependence between monks and laypeople is age-old. Monks receive alms from the laity and offer spiritual comfort in return. In villages without government schools, a monastic education is often the only option.
“The monks’ role is more important than ever,” said Ar Sein Na, 46, a monk in the delta village of That Kyar. “In a time of immense suffering like this, people have nowhere to go except to monks.”
Kyi Than, 38, said she traveled 15 miles by boat to Sitagu Sayadaw’s camp.
“Our village monk died during the storm,” she said. “Monks are like parents to us. The government wants us to shut up, but monks listen to us.”
Faced with the deadliest cyclone to hit Asia in 38 years, senior monks have organized their own relief campaigns.
Every day, their convoys head down delta roads. A leading figure in these efforts is Sitagu Sayadaw, whose name invariably draws a thumbs-up sign here.
“Meditation cannot remove this disaster,” he said. “Material support is very important now. Now in our country, spiritual and material support are unbalanced.”