Tuesday, May 13, 2008
ANOTHER OF THE JUNTA'S SICK JOKES
n Sunday, the Bangkok Post reported on the junta's hijacking of international aid, in this case of a gift from the people of Thailand.
One box seen in the videos bore the name of Lt Gen Myint Swe, a rising star in the government hierarchy, in bold letters, overshadowing a smaller label which barely could be read:: "Aid from the Kingdom of Thailand."The generals also seem to have an interesting take on what is really needed by their hungry, thirsting people.
Over the past week, state-controlled newspapers and TV have highlighted pictures of military men passing out emergency supplies to the people affected by the cyclone, including, oddly, some shots showing officers handing out VCD and DVD players to the needy.Burma's monkhood has been out in front from the beginning of this disaster, organising communities for self-help, providing shelter for some of the displaced, and accepting donations with which to feed them. But AP's opening on this important aspect of Nargis' impact on the country leaves me annoyed.
The publicity stunt clashes with the reality. Recipients of government handouts have complained of the small quantities and poor quality.
The saffron-robed monks who spearheaded a bloody uprising last fall against Myanmar's military rulers are back on the front lines, this time providing food, shelter and spiritual solace to cyclone victims.That's the dumb way to say it. Anyone who didn't know what happened last fall could be left with a very wrong impression. Try this:
The saffron-robed monks who spearheaded a peaceful uprising last fall which resulted in a bloody, violent crackdown by Myanmar's military rulers, are back on the front lines... etc.Much better.
The junta are a jealous lot; nobody else may be credited for anything. They make the stars to shine. And they are forcing refugees to leave the monks' humble shelters, because no one can provide like the men in green.
One of the monastery's senior monks said he tried to argue with military officials who ordered the more than 100 refugees to leave.People are accustomed to giving food offerings to monks; now it's the other way around. But the larger monasteries are closely watched by troops and undercover military security men.
"I don't know where they will go. But that was the order," he said, asking for anonymity for fear of reprisals.
The government has not announced such an order, which appeared to be applied selectively. Other monasteries in Yangon have been told to clear out cyclone victims in coming days, the monk said, but in the delta, refugees were being allowed to remain or told they could come to monasteries for supplies but not shelter.
Newspapers have been ordered not to publish stories about monks aiding the people, and at least one monastery and one nunnery in Yangon were prohibited from accepting any supplies from relief organizations.One of Burma's favourite movie stars, Kyaw Dhyu, was stopped by a military patrol as he travelled through the devastated Irrawaddy Delta delivering bags of rice to cyclone victims. He was told, "You cannot give directly to the people." Kyaw Dhyu had given food to the monks last September, and was jailed for a month (he's not one of the generals' favourite stars).
Now Tin Win, the village head of hard-hit Dedaye town had been counting on that rice to feed the hundreds of refugees taking shelter in a Buddhist prayer hall.
He twitched with rage as he described the rice the military gave him.A reporter got himself into the middle of the power squabble on Sunday, in the southern fringes of the delta. Myint Oo, a village chief, was giving him a description of what had happened to the town, when an officious-looking fellow came along and interrupted.
"They gave us four bags," he said. "The rice is rotten — even the pigs and dogs wouldn’t eat it."
He said the United Nations 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. "I'm very angry," he said, adding an expletive to describe the military.
"Don’t tell these foreigners anything," the man said.Facts to the world. Weakness of the junta. Check. The reporter was detained for an hour and a half.
Myint Oo replied that he wanted to talk to the visitors in the hope that they could help rebuild the village.
"They will send the facts to the world and show the weakness of the Myanmar government," said the man in the white shirt.
He looked directly at Myint Oo and said in a loud voice, "Come outside!"
As the visitors departed, a village woman asked a soldier holding an AK-47 assault rifle why they had detained the foreigners.The regime has dug in its heels on refusing to hear the increasingly strong statements from President Bush and UN SecGen Ban Ki-moon.
"These are orders," the soldier replied. "Be quiet."
"The nation does not need skilled relief workers yet," Vice Admiral Soe Thein said in the New Light of Myanmar newspaper, a mouthpiece for the military which has ruled the nation with an iron grip for nearly half a century.They need no help "yet" and can do it all themselves "to an extent." The reports which manage somehow to escape this Orwellian nightmare are just getting worse.
He said the needs of the people following the storm, which has left around 62,000 dead or missing since ripping through the southern Irrawaddy delta on May 2, "have been fulfilled to an extent".
In an internal document seen Tuesday, the United Nations said it is receiving reports of the military forcing cyclone survivors out of their devastated villages and into other less-affected areas of the country.Cyclone survivors are not permitted to besmirch the glistening image of military ruled Burma. Everyone will be less-affected when the hardest-hit areas are completely off limits. Especially to those pesky foreigners, or as the junta likes to call us all, "international destructive elements."
A longtime foreign resident in Yangon told the AP in Bangkok that angry government officials have complained to him about the misappropriation of the aid by the military.I would vote for both likelihoods. Food is being sold at prices people can't afford, and undoubtedly somebodies' pantries are filling up fast. Priority One: Make sure the foreigners don't see anything. And as I heard from someone well-connected just a few hours ago, Priority Two appears to be: If they do see anything, make damn sure they don't have a camera.
He said the officials told him that quantities of the high-energy biscuits rushed into Myanmar by the WFP on its first flights were sent to a military warehouse.
They were exchanged by what the officials said were "tasteless and low quality" biscuits produced by the Industry Ministry to be handed out to cyclone victims, the foreign resident said.
He spoke on condition of anonymity because revealing his identity would jeopardize his safety.
He said it was not known what's happening to the high quality food — whether it is sold on the black market or consumed by the military.
Armed police checkpoints were set up outside Yangon, the main city, on the roads to the hard-hit Irrawaddy delta, and all foreigners were being sent back by policemen who took down their names and passport numbers.I know someone who scored a visa yesterday, so there should be some interesting stories from that quarter soon. As if these few anecdotal reports aren't bad enough.
"No foreigners allowed," a policeman said Tuesday after waving a car back.
CARE Australia's country director in Myanmar, Brian Agland, said members of his local staff brought back some of the rotting rice that's being distributed in the delta.As Tin Win in Dedaye said, even the pigs and dogs won't eat it.
"I have a small sample in my pocket, and it's some of the poorest quality rice we've seen," he said. "It's affected by salt water and it's very old."
After Myanmar allowed a U.S. Air Force C-130 cargo plane into its main city, Yangon, on Monday, the United States sent in one more cargo plane Tuesday with 19,900 pounds of blankets, water and mosquito netting. A third flight was to take in a 24,750-pound load.I watched the unloading of today's C-130 on AP satellite feed this afternoon. The manpower were all skinny teenagers, and all of them wearing sparkling new "USDA - Mon State" t-shirts. After loading, the truck was pushed across the tarmac. And I thought my photo on Sunday was an aberration! Apparently it's the standard for Burmese trucks to have no starter motors.
Merely trying to show the world what is happening carries more risk than it should.
"I can't talk now, I think I'm in danger," a reporter in Myanmar whispered into the phone. Click.This is where journalists on the ground really earn their salaries. You have to sneak in (and try to look like a Burmese). Avoid checkpoints and military patrols, and somehow get out of Rangoon. Remember, spies are everywhere. And they'll know what you write.
Phones are tapped and the few foreign journalists inside Myanmar are operating in secret, making it dangerous and difficult to tell the story of the cyclone that has devastated the Southeast Asian country.
While a reporter in Myanmar was talking to an editor in Bangkok, loud tick-tick-tick sounds could be heard on the telephone line, often an indication of a tapped phone. That day, the reporter had been informed that the government was not pleased by an unflattering detail about the junta in a recent story. The reporter expressed concern about being arrested before abruptly hanging up. The reporter has so far not been detained.No wonder the authorities can't provide decent logistics for the aid. All hands are busy following foreigners around, and now even conducting sweeps for them.
Undercover police keep constant watch over hotels popular with journalists in Yangon, the commercial capital, prompting many reporters to constantly change locations to avoid attracting attention.I gave Dan Rivers of CNN a rough time over his breathless reporting from "actually inside Myanmar" last September (he was in a riverside tourist town, a world away from the demonstrations rocking the country). But he certainly redeems himself in my eyes covering this story. He somehow made it out of Rangoon and down the river into the delta, sending reports via satellite phone.
"Myanmar authorities are now searching hotels outside the capital in search of Westerners. The authorities were going room to room in a number of hotels," the London-based aid group PLAN said in a statement, citing accounts from journalists in the country.
CNN reporter Dan Rivers hid under a blanket in the back of a van at one checkpoint after sneaking into the country and being informed by a local contact that his TV reports had made him a marked man.He's back in Bangkok now, having "used up my nine lives," he says. The Irrawaddy and Democratic Voice of Burma are maintaining their undercover journalists.
Irrawaddy magazine has five reporters covering the cyclone, three of whom lost their houses in the storm, [Irrawaddy editor] Aung Zaw said. Their reports are picked up by U.S.-government funded radio stations Radio Free Asia and Voice of America, which relay them back to listeners in Myanmar.Thank you, US funded radio stations, both for this and for your Tibet reporting.
"They are all undercover. They wouldn't dare tell people they are (journalists)," the editor said. "There is a huge risk."
In a piece published by the Guardian yesterday one of the architects of the new United Nations doctrine of Responsibility to Protect, Gareth Evans, examined the issues involved in its possible invocation. The issue seems to pivot on the matter of "crimes against humanity," which by definition includes "other inhumane acts of a similar character intentionally causing great suffering, or serious injury to body or to mental or physical health". There's lots to debate about, but it's time the debate starts.
But when a government default is as grave as the course on which the Burmese generals now seem to be set, there is at least a prima facie case to answer for their intransigence being a crime against humanity - of a kind which would attract the responsibility to protect principle. And that bears thinking about, fast, both by the security council, and the generals.More talk like this from world capitals might just be enough to force the generals to think about it. But I'm not holding my breath.