Four boats carrying dozens of Burmese cyclone refugees sent back to their villages by the authorities have sunk in a storm on the Irrawaddy river, according to Burmese sources.
The four boats were transporting several dozen cyclone refugees back to their devastated villages in the Irrawaddy delta from Bogalay township, where they had sought aid and shelter, on May 19, sources in Burma said.
When a new storm struck, one ship went down near Byonehmwe island and another near Kaingdawa village, although whether anyone was rescued was unknown, the sources said. Two other boats sank near Kantayar port before leaving Bogalay, and the passengers escaped.
Two Red Cross workers were on the ship that sank near Byonehmwe island, one relief worker said, although she didn’t know whether they were local or foreign staff. No comment was available from International Committee of the Red Cross officials.
All passengers had fled their villages in the hardest-hit areas of the Irrawaddy delta and traveled to Bogalay in search of food, shelter, and water. They had been sheltering mainly in monasteries and schools, the relief worker said.
The authorities had given each family 20,000 kyat (about U.S. $20) in cash and eight pyi (about 16 kilos) of rice and told them to return home, the source said, possibly so they would be able to vote in a national referendum on a new constitution on May 24.
Voting went ahead in most of Burma last week despite an international outcry against the referendum and massive cyclone damage nationwide, but residents of the hardest hit areas had their vote delayed until this week.
“There are still a lot of victims in Bogalay. What they need most is material for tents, rice, salt, and clothing,” the relief worker said. “No effective aid has arrived there yet, except some from individual private donors.”
Local officials told refugees and residents that junta leader Than Shwe and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon were to visit the area, according to a Bogalay resident. “Within two or three hours, there was an order to put all of those who were in the state high school and monasteries on trucks and return them to their villages. They were put on army trucks and sent to the pier,” the resident said.
“The victims had with them rice and money—the money wasn't much, very little money—and their clothing…Nobody could remain behind…”
The resident said the authorities warned the refugees against discussing the incident or returning to Bogalay.
Ahead of the visit, roads were closed, bicycles, motorcycles, and trishaws were banned, and aid packages distributed to several dozen homes with a warning that they would be retrieved after the high-level visit concluded, he said.
“Their coming here is causing more trouble for people in Bogalay like us,” he said.
Posters in Rangoon
Separately, in the former capital, Rangoon’s Kawhmu division, authorities cracked down May 18 on residents who lined up in the streets when private donors headed to distribute aid in Kungyangon.
“The local authorities said it was a disgrace for them to come out and beg like this, and the people said they were begging because they were starving,” one Rangoon woman said.
The authorities took 80 people into custody and sent some 200 to a local monastery for aid, whose abbot said he didn’t have enough food for them, the woman said. When he called authorities to complain, they came and sent the group to shelter at a school, which also had no food for them.
Local authorities in Rangoon have now used loudspeakers to warn all residents against going out in search of aid and have distributed posters saying that begging for aid is disgraceful, the woman said.
The Burmese official media say about 78,000 people were killed by Cyclone Nargis, which struck on May 2, and that an estimated 56,000 remain unaccounted for. U.N. officials say some 2.4 million people are severely affected and at risk.
The junta has drawn sharp international criticism for refusing to allow international aid and aid workers into the country, but there are signs that position is easing. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said Tuesday that Burma was allowing nine World Food Programme helicopters to bring aid to more remote areas.
Original reporting by Maung Maung Nyo and Nay Linn for RFA’s Burmese service. Service director: Nancy Shwe. Executive producer: Susan Lavery. Written and produced in English by Sarah Jackson-Han.