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Junta Offers Showcase Camps, But Refugees Lack Aid

null|The New York Times
Thursday, 22 May 2008 | 11:50 PM ET

The 68 blue tents are lined up in a row, with a brand-new water purifier and boxes of relief supplies, stacked neatly but as yet undelivered and not even opened. “If you don’t keep clean, you’ll be expelled from here,” a camp manager barked at families in some tents.

The moment, at what has been billed as a model camp for survivors of Cyclone Nargis, captured a common complaint among refugees and aid volunteers: that the military junta that rules Myanmar cares more about the appearance of providing aid than actually providing it.

Myanmar soldiers carry sacks of rice, part of aid supplied by the Thai government, at an airport in Yangon, Myanmar Tuesday, May 6, 2008. Myanmar's Irrawaddy delta, where nearly 22,000 people perished, remained largely cut off from the rest of the world Tuesday, four days after a cyclone unleashed winds, floods and high tidal waves on the densely populated region. (AP Photo)
ASSOCIATED PRESS
Myanmar soldiers carry sacks of rice, part of aid supplied by the Thai government, at an airport in Yangon, Myanmar Tuesday, May 6, 2008. Myanmar's Irrawaddy delta, where nearly 22,000 people perished, remained largely cut off from the rest of the world Tuesday, four days after a cyclone unleashed winds, floods and high tidal waves on the densely populated region. (AP Photo)

As a result of heavy international pressure, the junta has embarked on a campaign to show itself as responsive and open to aid as China has been in the wake of the earthquake that killed tens of thousands in Sichuan Province. On Thursday, the United Nations secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, arrived in Myanmar, as United Nations officials said that, nearly three weeks after the cyclone that left 134,000 dead or missing, they were finally seeing some small improvement.

The first 10 helicopters loaded with supplies from the World Food Program arrived Thursday. But of the 2.4 million survivors, United Nations officials say, only 500,000 have received any aid to date.

Mr. Ban received guided tours of apparently well-run government camps like this one for survivors, presenting one vision of the junta’s response to its people and the outside world. But interviews with survivors and Burmese breaking rules to help them suggest a different story: of a government that seems to have assisted little and, at times, with startling callousness, has even expelled homeless refugees from shelters that the junta needs for other purposes.

This relief camp in the western outskirts of Yangon, the country’s main city, made headlines in Myanmar’s state-run press when the junta’s leader, Senior Gen. Than Shwe, showed up there on Sunday to inspect the government relief effort.

A few days after the general’s inspection, the camp’s tidy blue tents were still set up but bottles of cooking oil inside many of them remained in their boxes. Pots and pans still bore their brand-name stickers.

The camp's sole "medical" tent, identified by a Red Cross flag, held neither patients nor medicine. Its desk was staffed by two teenagers in uniform. Police officers armed with rifles guarded the entrance, where a new water purification tank donated by a local company was on prominent display.

Just a short ride down a potholed road, a striking divide is evident, one between the model relief camp and the continuing plight of many victims.

In the village of Ar Pyin Padan, a few minutes’ walk from here and just an hour’s drive from the center of Yangon, 40 families who lost nearly everything they owned crowded a rundown two-story school building. They had pushed desks together to serve as makeshift beds.

Here, deliveries of relief supplies are so infrequent that the refugees say they draw lots to get a small share whenever a donation comes in. For drinking water, one said, the township authorities “threw some medicine” into a nearby pond and told the villagers to drink from it.

Now the authorities are allowing no more refugees into the school. Instead they are trying to evict those who are already there so that the building can be used as a balloting station on Saturday. Despite the devastation and misery left by the cyclone, the junta is pressing ahead with voting in the two hardest-hit administrative divisions, Yangon and the Irrawaddy Delta, to complete a referendum on a new Constitution intended to perpetuate military rule. The Constitution was already overwhelmingly approved in other parts of the country.

“They want us to move out,” said one man in the school shelter. “But we have nowhere to go. Maybe if I had four or five sticks of bamboo, I could rebuild my house and start over but they don’t even give us that. So please donate to us. We need urgent help.”

He called the blue tents a short distance away beyond the rice paddies a “V.I.P. camp” — hastily constructed and occupied by villagers tutored to receive visiting junta generals or envoys from the United Nations.

In the past week, the state-run news media have given lavish coverage to General Than Shwe and other generals visiting areas devastated by the storm. At the same time, some critics say the junta has been obstructing attempts by Burmese to deliver assistance to isolated villages.

“The government is not really interested in helping people,” said U Thura, a dissident comedian who has been jailed four times in the past two decades for his outspokenness. “What they want is to show to the rest of the country and the world that they have saved the people and now it’s time to go back to business as usual.”

Mr. Thura and other volunteers have been lugging relief goods into remote villages in the Irrawaddy Delta over the past two weeks.

“Only a very small percentage of the victims get help at government-run camps,” he said in an interview. “Those fortunate enough to live near roads and rivers also get help. But people in remote villages that are hard to reach don’t get anything. To make it worse, the people in the Irrawaddy Delta have traditionally been antigovernment, so the junta doesn’t like them.”

“Even if they die,” he said, “the generals won’t feel sorry for them.”

For these outlying villagers in the delta, occasional visits by people like Mr. Thura have been virtually the only help they could get. But even people like the ones much closer to Yangon, like Ar Pyin Padan, do not appear to be faring much better.

“If they don’t get help soon, so many of them will die,” said a 36-year-old Yangon resident who has made four private aid runs into villages near Hpayapon, a delta town. “It’s hot when the sun shines and cold when it rains. When you see the villages, you just wonder how these people sleep at night in the rain. They have no shelter to speak of.”

“They are still so stunned by what had happened to them that they show no emotion,” he said. “They don’t even thank us when we give them food. They just accept the help with no expression in their faces.”

He said that during their aid runs he and his friends saw people with pneumonia, cholera and diarrhea. He spoke on condition of anonymity because the private aid deliveries that his group conducts are prohibited.

Mr. Thura and other aid runners said they were hampered by reinforced military checkpoints as well as by roads washed away and streams clogged with storm debris. Those who reach towns with aid are told that such goods must be distributed through the authorities. Many groups like Mr. Thura’s break away and head deeper into the delta on their own.

“We usually drive from Yangon in five hours, switch to a boat and travel four more hours and then we carry whatever we can — rice, noodles, energy drinks, medicine, gaslights — on our backs and walk,” he said. “You really need helicopters and boats to help these people.”

One of his recent trips took him to a village called Mangay. The village, whose name means “gaze at” in Burmese, was a sorry sight, he said. Once a prosperous community of 1,000 families who supplied dried fish throughout Myanmar, Mangay was virtually wiped out: 700 families were left homeless and 500 people were reportedly dead or missing.

Mr. Thura said more than 400 people were making donations for his aid runs as a way of helping the victims directly. Still, his five teams of renegade aid runners, who often use Buddhist monks as scouts, could only manage to deliver 6.5 million kyats, about $6,500, of relief a day into 32 villages.

The aid runners are coming under increasing pressure from the government.

Twenty of Mr. Thura’s team members have received calls from the police warning that they will be punished if they continue their work. On Sunday, he said, his photographer, U Kyaw Swar Aung, was arrested and has not been heard from since. He had been traveling around the delta making videos of dead bodies, crying children and villagers who went insane after the storm and distributing them as DVDs.

Meanwhile, Mr. Thura said the government seemed less focused on aid than on making sure there were no more scenes like those to film. In one place, he said he saw a pile of floating bodies clogging the narrow mouth of a stream after they were dumped into the water by soldiers on a cleanup operation.

“Then the soldiers used dynamite to blow up the bodies into shreds,” he said.

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