Agam's Gecko
Thursday, May 08, 2008
Burma's refugees
Displaced families near Dedaye township, 48 km. south of Rangoon, wait for help from somebody, anybody, on May 7, 2008.
Photo: AFP / Khin Maung Win

early a week after the deadly cyclone hit their country, Burma's junta finally allowed the first UN flight of the waiting international airlift to enter the country today. Aid agencies normally expect to get into a disaster area within 48 hours at the most, but relief teams from the UN and a variety of countries are still stalled in Bangkok waiting for visas. A Thai Airways cargo plane had earlier delivered seven tons of high energy biscuits.

An assurance this morning delivered through the Thai military, that US C-130's would be permitted to bring in relief supplies has apparently been rescinded (or was miscommunicated).

The ASEAN regional group of countries is urging the junta to work with the international community, in the words of Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan, "before it's too late." The news just keeps getting worse, as a single township in the Irrawaddy Delta is thought to have an estimated 80,000 dead. Prices of basic commodities have doubled or tripled, and the junta is actually selling food to survivors -- at prices they can't afford.

The regime appears frozen in a quandary. Do they open the doors to the helpful foreigners, and risk "outside influence" (not to mention the foreign aid-givers getting credit among the people, and making the generals jealous); or do they keep the foreigners out, and risk taking all the blame themselves?

With many tens of thousands dead, and survivors without shelter possibly numbering in the millions, the reclusive leader of the junta has become yet more reclusive. Than Shwe hasn't been seen since before the cyclone struck. Thai Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej has tried to reach the ruling generals today; his failure was blamed on damaged communications towers.
Than Shwe and his close aides, generals Maung Aye and Thura Shwe Mann, have all but disappeared since Cyclone Nargis hit Burma...

As head of state, Than Shwe has not even responded to world leaders who sent messages of condolences to the people of Burma.

Than Shwe’s the last appearance in the Burmese media was Friday, May 2, the day the cyclone struck. Instead of issuing a cyclone warning, the state radio and television reported a backdated news item that Than Shwe had personally picked up Prime Minister Gen Thein Sein from the airport in Naypyidaw.
After the cyclone struck Rangoon, about 1000 prisoners at Insein Prison were herded into the main prison hall and locked inside (as reported here on Tuesday). A fire was lit to provide themselves warmth, but the hall itself caught fire. In the mad scramble to flee out the open roof, prison guards opened fire killing at least 36 and wounding around 70 prisoners.

It now appears that wasn't the end of it. The following morning the authorities took four prisoners for interrogation, accusing them of masterminding the "riot." Ko Ohn Kyaw, a member of the Organizing Committee of the National League for Democracy was one of the four. He was bludgeoned to death during interrogation.

Democratic Voice of Burma reports that four inmates were killed during these interrogations and 98 others, including four other political prisoners from the NLD, have been sent to an interrogation centre for further "questioning."

The regime may be facing a 'tipping point' says longtime Asia hand Larry Jagan.
Pictures of soldiers removing fallen trees and clearing roads in Rangoon on the state-run television has further infuriated many in the city. "This is pure propaganda – and it's far from the truth," e-mailed a Burmese journalist who did not want to be identified for fear of the consequences. "Why do foreign broadcasters show them, too? Broadcasting Burma government propaganda is a disgrace to journalism."
I've seen these clips on foreign broadcasters too, relaying the state-television propaganda. One scene of a high-ranking official presenting "aid" to a handful of people in rags showed his unmistakable hesitation as he handed over a small box to an old man, while looking around to see where the camera was. The Burmese people get fed these staged photo ops every single day in normal circumstances, why are the global media so clueless as to join in?
"The military have shown their true colours, and have shown no concern for the plight of the people," said Win Min, an independent Burmese academic based in Chiang Mai. "This could easily be the final nail in the military's coffin. It is no longer a matter of if but when."
DVB has some independent videos from its journalists, and a growing photo gallery.

I've read that the regime is being criticised for not heeding warnings from India's meteorological officials of Nargis' impending strike 48 hours before landfall. But according to Thai officials, their warnings were delivered a week in advance.
Burma's Department of Meteorology and Hydrology was told of the formation of Cyclone Nargis a week in advance, but the country was not prepared to handle a disaster of this magnitude.

Bhichit Rattakul, executive director of Thailand-based Asian Disaster Preparedness Centre (ADPC), said yesterday that one of the first warnings came from the US Navy's Joint Typhoon Warning Centre, which issued an alert on April 27.

The ADPC, which established an Asia-Pacific-wide early-warning centre for natural disasters at Thailand's Asian Institute of Technology in the wake of 2004 tsunami disaster, forecast the tropical cyclone in the Bay of Bengal, he said.

According to Bhichit, a former science minister and Bangkok governor, the data were passed on to authorities in several countries in the region, including India and Burma.

"Our model forecast was right in the landfall position of Cyclone Nargis and we issued this forecast to Burma seven days before the landfall. This accuracy is because the ADPC can provide maps with a high-resolution, 9-kilometre radius to pinpoint the location of our forecasts.
And no warnings were passed on to Burma's long suffering people, even on the day of landfall. State propaganda messages take precedence over all else.


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