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BURMA: Foreigners, Cameras Banned in Cyclone-Hit Areas

Marwaan Macan-Markar

BANGKOK, May 13 2008 (IPS) - Images of the dead keep trickling out of Burma. The most moving are those of children who died when Cyclone Nargis tore through their world in the populous Irrawaddy delta.

Bodies of children killed by Cyclone Nargis.  Credit:  MYM/IPS

Bodies of children killed by Cyclone Nargis. Credit: MYM/IPS

Among those e-mailed to IPS is one showing a row of six children, girls in faded dresses, a boy in shorts and an orange shirt, and another in a blue sarong. There is an image of a child, face down, stuck between branches of a bush. And there is another of a man, shock on his face, holding a dead baby in his arms.

Yet the photographer does not want to be named. He knows the risks he faces if he is identified in a country ruled by a military that has no limits to its oppression since coming to power following a 1962 coup. Even the May 3 cyclone, which has reportedly killed over 100,000 people and rendered over a million homeless, has done little to change the junta’s iron grip.

This week, a senior junta official issued another command to extend the blanket of censorship that has been thrown over the devastated terrain. Prime Minister Gen. Thein Shien told a meeting of pro-junta businessmen that ‘’no foreigners’’ and ‘’no cameras’’ would be permitted in the delta, in south-western Burma, according to an informed source.

The order from that meeting, held at the Rangoon military command headquarters, comes in the wake of the junta denying visas to foreign journalists to enter the country and its enforcing tougher restrictions on the cyclone coverage by local Burmese news magazines.

The junta’s attempt to keep this South-east Asian country’s worst natural disaster from the public eye is part of a strategy that has become painfully clear during the 10 days since the cyclone struck. The regime in Burma, also called Myanmar, wants to give the impression locally and internationally that it has the relief efforts under control.

Its interaction with the U.N. officials in Rangoon, the former capital, has set the tone. Till May 9, the junta had not made a formal or informal request for U.N. assistance, a highly- placed source in the dilapidated city said in an interview. ‘’They have still remained aloof.’’

In fact, assistance by U.N. agencies in Burma thus far has been shaped by the latter’s initiative. ‘’The U.N has been offering assistance – even battling to provide it – and they accept it in bits and pieces,’’ the source added.

Any hope that U.N. officials harboured of a change in attitude were dashed a press conference given by three ministers on Sunday dashed. This trio, which included Social Welfare Minister Gen. Maung Maung Swe, informed the media that the Burmese government was ‘’in control of the situation,’’ and that thanks to the government’s response ‘’nobody has died except as a direct result of the cyclone’’ and that it was ‘’grateful for the international aid provided’’. ’’

‘’Myanmar is pleased to receive assistance, but distribution is to be done by the government and foreigners are not allowed in affected areas,’’ Gen. Maung Maung Swe had said. ‘’If you want to visit, write to us; we will consider on a case-by- case basis and go together at the appropriate time.’’

No wonder the U.N.’s exasperation, at what some describe as the junta’s ‘’negligence on a criminal scale’’, was on full display on Monday at the world body’s headquarters in New York. ‘’I want to register my deep concern – and immense frustration – at the unacceptably slow response to this grave humanitarian crisis,’’ U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon said at a press conference. ‘’I therefore call, in the most strenuous terms, on the Government of Myanmar to put its people’s lives first. It must do all that it can to prevent this disaster from becoming even more serious.’’

Ban also used the conference to echo the view of many international relief agencies gathered in Bangkok who are having difficulty getting their staff trained in emergency operations into the delta because of Burma’s visa restrictions. ‘’They, too, need greater access and freedom of movement,’’ he said.

But the junta shot down the call barely hours after it was made. ‘’The nation does not need skilled relief workers yet,’’ a senior junta official was reported to have said in Tuesday’s edition of the ‘New Light of Myanmar’, a mouthpiece of the junta.

In doing so, the regime reaffirmed the kind of assistance it is receptive to – cash donations or aid in kind given directly to the generals in power. Typical of such assistance was the aid rushed to Burma by its giant western neighbour, India.

A week after the cyclone struck, New Delhi sent two Indian navy ships – INS Rana and INS Kirpan – loaded with immediate relief and medical supplies. Four Indian airforce planes – – two AN-32s and two IL-76s – loaded with tents, medicine and roofing material also made deliveries. India’s assistance was received in Rangoon by Foreign Minister Nyan Win and Social Welfare Minister Gen. Maung Maung Swe.

Similar government-to-government aid efforts have been carried out by Burma’s neighbours Thailand and China and its regional neighbours, such as Singapore. Some smaller Asian countries have given the junta cash.

‘’This way there are no impediments, there is no confusion,’’ a diplomat from a developing country told IPS. ‘’Most developing countries prefer it this way.’’

Yet such aid, while welcome, is barely a trickle compared to what the cyclone-torn country needs. It has also failed to win support from some international humanitarian agencies and Burmese living in the country and in exile. The military regime, they say, is not equipped to handle a disaster of such monumental scale. What is more, there is emerging evidence that the junta is misusing the aid, they add.

And the likelihood of the junta changing its ways appears remote if the behaviour of the country’s strongman, the reclusive Senior Gen. Than Shwe is any indicator. So far, he has refused to take any calls from the U.N. Secretary General.

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