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BURMA: Cyclone Nargis Exposes Junta's Anti-People Attitude

Larry Jagan

BANGKOK, May 7 2008 (IPS) - Cyclone Nargis – Burma’s worst natural disaster in living memory – has reinforced the image of the military in that country as a force interested solely in perpetuating its grip on power, regardless of costs to the people it claims to protect.

Searching for food in Rangoon after Cyclone Nargis struck.  Credit: Mizzima News

Searching for food in Rangoon after Cyclone Nargis struck. Credit: Mizzima News

Official reports say upwards of 30,000 people have died in the May 2 cyclone, 40,000 have gone missing and a million more rendered homeless. But more than providing relief the military government seems concerned with carrying through a referendum that will enhance its hold over the country.

The only concession to a people reeling from the devastation caused by the cyclone is a shifting of polling day from May 10, as scheduled, to May 25 in some of the worst affected areas like Rangoon and the Irrawaddy Delta.

In Rangoon, the old capital, people are beginning to vent their anger at the military authorities’ indifferent response to the disaster.

"Where were they (military) when we needed them most – to clear up the mess on the streets, provide shelter and water, and protect us when the storm struck," a Burmese middle-aged housewife told IPS over phone, on condition of anonymity. "It took them a day to crack down on the monks (in September), but four days after the cyclone they’re still nowhere to be seen," she added angrily.

Most people in Rangoon feel the same, according to diplomats and journalists based there, contacted by IPS. "It’s the monks who have been leading the clean-up," said an elderly retired civil servant. "God bless them."

Pictures of soldiers removing fallen trees and clearing roads in Rangoon on the state-run television have further infuriated many in the city. "This is pure propaganda and it’s far from the truth," e-mailed a Burmese journalist, asking not to be identified for fear of the consequences. "Why do foreign broadcasters show them too -Burmese government propaganda is a disgrace enough to journalism," he fumed.

"I saw some soldiers getting onto a truck yesterday," said a 50-year-old resident. "They had no sweat on their shirts, despite what was shown on TV!"

"My wife saw three truckloads of soldiers parked in front of a fallen tree, none of them got down to remove it," he added.

Worse, there is evidence emerging that the military authorities had ample warning of a storm brewing in the Bay of Bengal but chose to ignore, or even suppress, it.

The Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) which keeps a close track of geo-climatic events in the Bay of Bengal and releases warnings not only to provinces on the Indian east coast but also to vulnerable littoral countries said it warned Burmese authorities of Cyclone Nargis’ formation and possible approach as early as on Apr. 26.

"We continuously updated authorities in Myanmar (as Burma is officially called) and on Apr. 30 we even provided them a details of the likely route, speed and locations of landfall,’’ IMD director B.P. Yadav told IPS correspondent in New Delhi, Ranjit Devraj.

Burma's meteorology department did post a warning on its official website on Apr. 27 but no effort was made to disseminate information to the people, much less to carry out evacuations along the coastline or from the islands on the Irrawaddy Delta.

By the time state-run media, which has been continuously spewing propaganda and exhorting the public to vote ‘yes’ to Saturday’s constitution referendum, issued its first cyclone alert on Friday afternoon it was too late for the hapless residents of Rangoon.

Most of the city’s residents are reported to be too shocked to do anything other than try to survive and protect their families. On the outskirts of the city, across the river where the poorer working class live, or lived, the flimsily built houses have all been flattened. Everyone in Rangoon is frantically searching for clean water, according to eyewitnesses.

The cyclone, with winds reaching over 200 km per hour, ripped through the commercial centre of Rangoon, leaving it looking like a war zone. Trees were uprooted and roofs of house and buildings were ripped off. The storm blacked out electricity and communications.

The densely populated area to the east of Rangoon, the Irrawaddy Delta, called the rice bowl of Burma, was the hardest hit. The cyclone whipped up tidal waves over two metres high and most of this low-lying land is still flooded.

More than 20 million people are believed to live in this fertile area of the country. Without any prior warning, they were left to the mercy of the furious winds and water surges.

The death toll is set to rise even further, according to aid workers in the country. It could reach quarter of a million people, a Burmese relief worker told IPS. "This is the worst disaster to hit Burma in living memory, it’s our tsunami," he said, asking not to be identified. "We may never know how many people perished."

International aid agencies and the United Nations are still on standby, waiting for the junta to give the green signal to mount relief and rehabilitation efforts. Experienced rapid deployment teams have been on alert and waiting for several days now.

"Our biggest concern is that the aftermath of the cyclone could be more deadly than the storm itself," Richard Horsey, spokesman for the regional U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) in Bangkok, told IPS. "The key focus now is getting clean water and medical supplies to the affected areas as quickly as possible to prevent a second wave of deadly epidemics from water-borne diseases."

Planeloads of relief supplies and equipment were reported arriving in Rangoon since Tuesday. Much of that is bilateral assistance from India, Thailand and Japan, though some U.N. aid agencies also managed to land supplies like plastic sheeting for make-shift accommodation, tents, mosquito nets, medical supplies and water purification tablets.

The International Committee for Red Cross has sent medical supplies while the U.N.’s main food aid organisation, the World Food Programme (WFP), has also managed to fly in extra supplies of rice and high-energy biscuits. "We hope to fly in more assistance in the next few days," WFP’s regional spokesman, Paul Risely, told IPS. "But the challenge will be to get this assistance to the affected areas in the Irrawaddy Delta because of road blockages.

The U.N. has begun to distribute food to the homeless in Rangoon. "WFP food assistance has now begun to reach persons who are without shelter or food resources in and around Yangon (Rangoon)," said Chris Kaye, WFP country director. Aid agencies are currently trying to reach the delta, and the government has provided a few helicopters and boats to help the delivery of relief materials.

The government belatedly realised that action is needed to prevent hoarding and price speculation. "We are coordinating and cooperating with businessmen. We appeal to entrepreneurs and businessmen not to cash in the disaster," Burma’s information minister Maj. Gen. Kyaw Hsan told a press conference.

But for most people in Burma this appeal simply added insult to injury, as they blame the government for the skyrocketing prices of staples – this was what gave rise to the massive street protests led by monks last year that were brutally suppressed.

"In Rangoon people feel they have lost everything and have nothing more to lose," said a young activist student. A repeat of September’s anti-price rise protests is increasingly likely, especially if the government continues to disregard the main concerns of the people crippled by the cyclone.

"The military has shown its true colours that it has no concern for the plight of the people," said Win Min, an independent Burmese academic based in Chiang Mai town, Thailand. "This could easily be the final nail in the military’s coffin; it is now no longer ‘if’ but ‘when’,’’ he added.

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