Aid Not Reaching Burmese

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Tin Nwe holds her infant son, Kyaw Zin Htay, in a temple in the Burmese delta town of Pyapon

Just two months old, Kyaw Zin Htay was already gravely ill when Cyclone Nargis slammed into his village on Saturday, killing more than 40 of its inhabitants. His mother wrapped him in a blanket and fled through knee-deep water to a temple nearby, where hundreds of people—mostly very young children—now shelter. Kyaw Zin Htay is too weak to struggle or cry when his mother pulls aside the blanket to display his emaciated limbs. He survived Burma's biggest natural disaster in living memory, but his short life will almost certainly end here, on a fly-blown concrete floor in a broken-down temple, waiting for help that might never come.

Indeed, this help has now been hindered as the World Food Programme confirmed it has had to halt aid shipments after the contents of its first delivery were impounded on arrival in the military-ruled country. The U.N. body says the Burmese government seized tonnes of aid material flown in to help victims of Cyclone Nargis.

"Seven days," says Kyaw Mya, another refugee at the temple, in broken English. "Seven days. Nothing coming. The government does nothing." Kyaw Mya is a retired soldier who cannot hide his disgust for the military regime that has run Burma for more than 40 years. "Nothing has been given from the government. They do not care to look after the public." Right now, the only person caring for them is a local midwife who dispenses from a plastic bag her meager but precious pharmacy: paracetamol, a few antibiotics, some antacid tablets. None of it will help the infant Kyaw Zin Htay.

Temples, schools and other buildings still standing in Burma's low-lying delta region are filling up with the sick and the homeless. State media claims that Nargis killed nearly 23,000 people, with more than 40,000 missing; the United Nations estimates some 1.5 million people will be severely affected. But traveling the road to Bogalay—a delta town which lay in the cyclone's path and took its full fury—there is little sign of a major relief operation.

Bogalay, a town of more than 50,000 people, is a five-to six-hour journey by car or motorbike from the old capital of Rangoon. The road passes through a shattered landscape. The 120 m.p.h winds uprooted trees, snapped concrete poles carrying power lines, and blew the tops off the golden pagodas. Structures of brick and concrete are missing their roofs. Houses of wood or straw are all but destroyed. In stricken delta towns like Kungyangon, Dedaye and Pyapon, almost every structure is damaged, many beyond repair. In Bogalay itself, no building is untouched. The streets are flanked by broken power lines, fallen trees and other debris.

Burma's government originally estimated the cyclone killed 10,000 people in Bogolay and the surrounding area, but I saw no dead bodies on the road to the city or in Bogalay itself. I saw no funerals. While the place is in tatters, the death toll may be greater in more exposed villages closer to the sea. Bogalay is slightly inland; the majority of deaths occurred in more flimsy coastal villages fully exposed to the elements and unprotected from a 12-foot-high surge of water.

I counted more than 30 government or army trucks plying the road, all apparently empty, and perhaps a dozen trucks carrying wood meant for house-building. There was one small group of soldiers trying to clear away the fallen power lines, another helping locals bury a decomposing water buffalo, apparently drowned by the same 12-feet-tall surge of water that claimed so many human victims.

Bogalay hospital is a one-story building with much of its roof missing. There are more than 100 patients in its wards, says one of its seven doctors, with "many more coming every day." But that’s all he will say. "You have to get permission from the military first," he says, adding hopefully, "Are you from a foreign NGO?" Nearby is another battered monastery which houses a hundred or so refugees, who have apparently been left to fend for themselves.

It takes less than 10 minutes for the local police to catch up with us. Accompanied by two officers, a police lieutenant copies our passport details into his notebook, shakes our hands,and leaves. At the monastery, we are told "no photos, no interviews" by a fourth officer. The relief effort isn’t working—the UN and other agencies have complained that Myanmar is dragging its feet on the issuing of visas for its personnel they say are badly needed to cope with the crisis—but the apparatus of state control, which watches Burmese and foreigners alike, is apparently doing just fine.

Burma's junta has only five helicopters at its disposal, says a Western diplomat in Rangoon. Today, I saw only three helicopters; or perhaps I saw only one helicopter three times. There were a few cars belonging to foreign aid agencies such as MSF and UNICEF, but these were ferrying experts here to assess the situation, not to provide relief aid.

Although narrow and in places rutted, the road to Bogalay is passable. So where is the aid? The junta wants foreign supplies, but not more aid workers. The junta has delayed issuing visas to foreign aid officials. Latest reports suggest the junta will start rejecting them outright.

Kyaw Mya, the ex-soldier, and tens of thousands like him await basic supplies. Yet the day before, Prime Minister Gen. Thein Sein, who is overseeing Burma's relief effort, "presented 20 sets of TV, 10 DVD players, and 10 satellite receivers" to entertain storm victims elsewhere in the delta, reported the junta newspaper The New Light of Myanmar. "The government is not coming," summarizes Kyaw Mya. "Foreign countries are not coming."

So the people of the delta fend for themselves. Farming families dry their recently harvested rice on nets spread out on the Bogalay road, and hang their damp clothes on the dead power lines. In the Bogalay area, the harvest was almost complete when Nargis struck, although much of it now lies unhusked in cyclone-crippled rice mills.

When night falls, the delta is swallowed by the darkness. Candles burn dimly in the ruins. Most of Rangoon is also without power, and only the well-lit Shwedagon, the nation's most scared pagoda, is visible from a distance. Otherwise, Burma's largest city—a city of 4 million people—is barely a flicker on the horizon.

The junta still plans to hold a referendum on its new constitution on May 10, a move that is expected to legally legitimize military rule. Authorities have even promised to expel cyclone victims sheltering in a school in northern Rangoon so that it can be used as a polling station, claims a Western aid agency. Meanwhile, foreign embassies have received formal invitations to observe the proceedings, "probably to distract us from the lack of a relief effort," observes the Western diplomat.