Burma Aid 'Diverted by Officials'

Burmese cyclone survivors and healthcare workers say the junta is still diverting aid.
2008-06-06
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KYONDAH, Burma: Boy displaced by Cyclone Nargis stands in his tent as he waits for United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, May 22, 2008.
KYONDAH, Burma: Boy displaced by Cyclone Nargis stands in his tent as he waits for United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, May 22, 2008.
Photo: AFP

BANGKOK—Burmese authorities are still preventing crucial relief supplies from getting to victims of Tropical Cyclone Nargis, which tore through the Irawaddy delta more than a month ago, according to healthcare workers and survivors on the ground.

A nurse at a hospital in Day-da-yeh township, near the former capital Rangoon, said doctors, nurses and hospital staff were angry because officials had removed medicine from local and international donors.

“They took away the medicines donated earlier, and that’s why the staff members are very upset,” the nurse said. “These are medical staff members like nurses. Some even want to leave their jobs.”

International aid agencies and rights groups say many people in stricken areas still haven’t received any aid, and that the military regime continues to impose constraints on international rescue efforts.

U.S. Navy ships laden with relief supplies steamed away from Burma on June 5, their helicopters barred from delivering supplies by the ruling junta. The USS Essex group, which includes four ships, 22 helicopters and 5,000 U.S. military personnel, had waited off the Burmese coast for three weeks.

No clean water

The Day-da-yeh hospital nurse said large numbers of cyclone survivors still lacked access to clean water, and that diarrhea medicine was now in very short supply.

“Now people are starting to have diarrhea,” she said. “Medicines arrive but not enough. Some medicines are not enough, like medicines for diarrhea that is likely to happen later.”

Since flood water went into the two lakes on the other side, we had to drain them. We took out the mud and cleaned them. We changed the dirty water. We are working in groups, and each group has its own duty. We are all working on our own.”

Village chief

“We don’t get enough oral medicines. We need medicines for stomach problems and diarrhea.”

She said an additional disease risk came from a lack of roofs and walls to protect people from mosquitoes, which are breeding rapidly in floodwaters, and that children especially were in danger of acquiring mosquito-borne diseases like dengue fever.

“Currently, there are large families with not enough blankets or mosquito nets. Mosquitoes are multiplying, so we’re concerned about that,” she said.

Volunteer doctors, stolen timber

In some cyclone-hit areas, local Burmese donors and volunteer doctors are going to villages in remote areas close to the ocean shore to treat cyclone victims, residents said.

Residents of Tunte township, Rangoon Division, said local officials had sold a recent shipment of timber which was supposed to have been distributed free to people desperately needing to repair their houses.

“At the government timber shop, there were 50 tons of timber for the cyclone victims in Tunte township,” a woman resident of Tunte said. “U Maung Maung Ta, Tunte township chief...bought it from them for 70,000 kyat and sold it at a timber shop for 200,000.”

“Victims went to U Aung Tha Zan, chairman of the township government, to get his signature so that they could get some timber to repair their houses destroyed by the cyclone. He said they hadn’t had a meeting yet and couldn’t give them timber for this reason...He yelled at people and sent them away,” the woman said.

She also accused a ward-level official in Tunte of selling eight of the 30 bags of rice donated for cyclone victims.

A local man backed up her story. “The township government said they were going to distribute timber and zinc sheets only if one had the signature of the chairman of the township,” he said.

“However, when we went to the township government, they gave all kinds of excuses, and the chairman of the township didn’t give his signature and didn’t give us permission to buy the timber. But they were selling it to the authorities and merchants and brokers. The merchants and brokers then would sell it back at market rates in private shops,” he said.

“The cyclone victims have no zinc sheets or timber, so they put bamboo on their houses and use waterproof sheets for roofing. They can’t get any thatch either,” he added.

Amnesty charges

A report by international human rights group Amnesty International released June 5 cited 40 accounts of Burmese government soldiers or local officials having confiscated, diverted, or otherwise misused aid intended for cyclone survivors.

Although the junta has granted greater access to the hardest-hit Irrawaddy delta, “recent incidents of corruption and diversion of aid suggest a potentially serious threat to effective distribution of aid,” the report said.

Most of the cases that were cited involved authorities confiscating aid from private donors or arresting them for refusing to hand the aid over. Amnesty also accused the authorities of forcing cyclone survivors to perform menial labor in exchange for food and stepped up a campaign to evict displaced citizens from aid shelters.

A major U.N. agency on Monday, however, caught junta officials trying to divert their aid after the officials insisted on accompanying the U.N. workers who were delivering it, Amnesty spokesman Benjamin Zawacki told a news conference in Bangkok. He declined to give additional details.

The cyclone victims have no zinc sheets or timber, so they put bamboo on their houses and use waterproof sheets for roofing. They can’t get any thatch either."
Tunte resident

Local donors

Villagers from one small fishing village near the ocean said authorities hadn’t once visited their villages to provide aid since the storm hit on May 2-3, killing 78,000 people and leaving a further 56,000 missing.

“It’s only the local donors who are coming and donating. We are so happy when they come to donate. We are willing to volunteer our labor and carry things, both old and young people,” one resident said.

“I’ve been carrying things since morning and haven’t gone to work. When people come to donate, we are so happy and grateful. We pray that they will become more and more prosperous and healthy.”

Self-help

Self-help programs are also springing up among the storm victims themselves.

One villager leading a movement to get clean water said that villagers were trying to recover the lakes for drinking water using water purifying substances given by local donors.

“We get the medicine from the township,” the village chief said. “Doctors come here, and sick people can go to them to be seen. It’s free. They don’t take money. Anyone can come.”

“They’ve been coming here for two weeks already. They also came and put medicine in the lakes,” he said.

“Since flood water went into the two lakes on the other side, we had to drain them. We took out the mud and cleaned them. We changed the dirty water. We are working in groups, and each group has its own duty. We are all working on our own.”

Original reporting by Suu Mon and Aung Moe Myint for RFA’s Burmese service. Director: Nancy Shwe. Translated by Than Than Win. Written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.

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