Monday, August 25, 2008

Authorities extort money from cyclone victims

Aug 25, 2008 (DVB)–Villagers in Irrawaddy division have complained that local authorities have continued to extort money from cyclone victims under various pretexts, despite a letter of complaint they sent to SPDC leaders to report the practice.

U Than Zin, chairman of Mangay Kalay village Peace and Development Council in Dadaye township, PDC members and U Khin Kyaw (also known as U Htin Kyaw) of the township land survey department extorted money from villagers for receiving aid from donors.

U Ba Kyi, a farmer from Mangay Kalay, said locals had been forced to pay for diesel fuel that had been donated to them.

“There were 1383 gallons of diesel, and they collected 500 kyat a gallon from us – so 919,000 kyat,” U Ba Kyi said.

“But these were actually given to us as donations.”

U Ba Kyi said each household was also told to pay money to help cyclone victims.

“They collected 500 kyat each from 432 families on the pretext of helping the storm victims,” he said.

“We had to pay 216,000 each time and we had to pay four times, totaling around 864,000.”

The authorities reportedly told villagers they needed to collect money to fund the accommodation and hospitality for donors.

“Not satisfied with that, they collected 8000 kyat each from 212 farmers in order to buy fertiliser from the state agricultural organisation – 742 bags of fertilizers – amounting to exactly 1,696,000,” U Ba Kyi said.

“They have been misappropriating the money they have collected.”

The villagers sent their letter of complaint, which they had each signed and given their national identity card number, to junta leader senior general Than Shwe, prime minister general Thein Sein, the social and relocation minister and hotel and tourism minister, and the commander of Western Command, but no action has so far been taken by the authorities.

Similarly in Talokehtaw village in Rangoon division’s Twante township, the village authority chairman and members of the Union Solidarity and Development Association and the Women’s Affairs Federation have been profiting from aid, a villager told DVB.

“In Twante’s Talokehtaw village, when they’re distributing rice or medicine, there have been incidents when they have failed to give out the aid or extorted money,” the villager said.

The villager said that goods had mainly been distributed to people who supported the authorities, while others had to pay to receive materials.

“One day, they gave things out using a raffle ticket system, but each house had to pay 300 kyat to enter the raffle,” the villager said.

“Even if you won something you had to pay 1500 kyat [to receive it],” he said.

“U Maung Thaung, U Aye Thaung and Daw Cho are the main people involved in that.”

Reporting by Aye Nai

Cyclone Victims Turn to Towns for Handouts

A woman walks amongst the debris of homes still being occupied in the Irrawaddy Delta. (Photo: AFP)

The Irrawaddy News

RANGOON — Economic hardships have forced a growing number of survivors of Cyclone Nargis to leave their homes in rural parts of the Irrawaddy delta to seek assistance in Rangoon and other urban centers, according to local sources.

“I came to Rangoon to look for donors,” said a 50-year-old man from Kyone Chin, a village in Dedaye Township. “We don’t have enough food in our village, and our farming and fishing businesses have still not recovered. We need assistance badly.”

Kyone Chin village lost 50 of its 1,400 inhabitants and ninety percent of its structures in the deadly cyclone, according to the man. He added that food supplies and other assistance from UN agencies and the government have been dwindling over time.

“The whole village was terribly destroyed. The worst thing is that now we are facing hunger,” he said, explaining why he had come to Rangoon to find support for his village.

Private donors played an important role in the early stages of the relief effort, but nearly four months later, their numbers have fallen. Due in part to government efforts to control movements in the cyclone-stricken region, few trucks carrying privately donated relief supplies are now reaching remote villages, say local people.

Other cyclone-hit villages in Dedaye Township, including Leik Kyun, Hmae Bi, Lay Ywa, Mae Kanan, Taw Pone and Yae Pu Wa, are also facing severe shortages of foodstuffs and other basic supplies, according to local residents.

They are not alone in waiting for aid. A volunteer from Rangoon who has been involved in relief and rebuilding efforts in the delta said that many villages in Kungyangone Township, including Taw Kha Yan Gyi, Taw Kha Yan Kalay, Mayan, Maezali and Hti Pha, are also desperate for additional assistance.

“The situation is hard to say,” said the volunteer. “They do get a little assistance from the government and they have received some from UN agencies. But it’s not enough.

“There are still many people living under make-shift temporary shelters constructed with bamboo posts and tarpaulins sheets. Some can’t get rice to eat, so they are just surviving on what little food is available to them,” the volunteer added.

A local journalist who recently returned from Laputta Township said that farmers there were also struggling, as seeds planted late in the season have not been growing well. Fishermen are also worried about their future food security, as poor-quality nets and boats provided by the government have proven to be almost useless.

“In Laputta, there is no immediate concern about rice, since it is mainly provided by the UN,” said the journalist. “The problem is with rebuilding livelihoods. The farmers are not doing well because the tillers provided by the government are often broken, and seeds are not growing properly. Fishermen also have trouble because the boats they received after the cyclone often need fixing, and the nets are useless for fishing.”

The journalist added that much of the aid that does reach some of the more remote villages soon ends up in the hands of village officials, as little effort has been made to rein in widespread corruption.

Meanwhile, in Mawlamyainggyun Township, there are also reports of severe food shortages in the villages of Yae Twin Kone, Pet Pyae, Ta Zaung, Alae Yae Kyaw, Myit Kyi Toe and Pya Leik.

According to a resident of Alae Yae Kyaw, some local villages have sent small groups to Laputta to appeal for aid from local relief organizations based there. The results of their efforts have been disappointing, however.

“When we asked an NGO in Laputta for assistance, they provided just 3 pyi (about 750 ml) of rice per person for the whole month.”

Little aid ever reaches the villages of Mawlamyainggyun Township because of their inaccessibility. Villages located on the boundary of Mawlamyainggyun and Laputta townships, such as Yae Twin Kone, Pet Pyae, Ta Zaung, Alae Yae Kyaw, Myit Kyi Toe and Pya Leik, are especially deprived because they can only be reached by chartered boats and are reportedly not on the government’s list of villages eligible for support.

If villagers in these areas do not receive aid to rebuild their lives soon, the hunger and destitution they face now could result in more severe problems in the future, said a local volunteer who has witnessed the situation.

“Unless they receive some means of surviving, the hunger of these villagers could lead to killings and robbing. If we can’t heal a small sore now, we may face more serious harm in the long run,” said the volunteer.

Aiding Burma's Recovery

VOA - 24 August 2008
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As Burma recovers from the devastation of the May 2nd, Cyclone Nargis, the United States and other international donors continue to provide needed help. The worst disaster in Burma's recorded history, Cyclone Nargis killed up to one-hundred-thousand people. Thousands more are still missing. Damage is estimated at over four-billion dollars.

Relief agency officials say that by now almost all of the more than two-million survivors of the storm and seawater surge have received some food aid. About half of the estimated four-hundred-eighty-eight-thousand households have received some building materials. But the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs says that despite the delivery of more than twenty-five-thousand tons of food assistance, people in remote areas, "are still living in dire conditions."

To help those most in need, the U.S. Agency for International Development is supporting nonprofit partners, such as Church World Service and the Agency for Technical Cooperation and Development, a non-governmental organization based in France, to resume agriculture and other kinds work in vulnerable areas.

Already, eight-hundred drinking ponds that were fouled with salt water have been filtered and cleared of debris, dead animals, and, most tragic, human bodies. Work is underway to repair nine-hundred schools and establish four-hundred temporary safe learning places for sixty-thousand children.

Relief workers are distributing fishing nets as well as seeds and other agricultural inputs in time for the monsoon-planting season, which will end this month. After a tardy response that put many Burmese at risk, the Burmese government has gradually opened the country to outside help.

The U.S. government has given fifty-million dollars in disaster aid to Burma. From May 12 to June 22, the U.S. flew one-hundred-eighty-five airlifts of U.S., Thai, United Nations and non-governmental organization relief supplies from Thailand to Burma. At an August 7 meeting with Burmese democracy activists during his visit to Bangkok, Thailand, President George W. Bush said he is "pleased that a lot of the aid that we paid for is actually getting to the people themselves."

Ghosts amid the wreckage in Myanmar

By Seth Mydans
August 25, 2008

BANGKOK (IHT): Nearly four months after the cyclone, the Irrawaddy Delta in Myanmar is a flat, dark expanse of ruin populated by dazed survivors, unburied bodies and visions of wandering, moaning ghosts.

The region seems to have avoided mass starvation and epidemic, and people are rebuilding their precarious lives in this vast and often flooded marshland where the margin between survival and death has always been thin.

Within that thin margin, recent visitors say, many of the survivors seem to have lost their spark of life, and some of the dead seem not yet to have disappeared as they haunt the minds of those they left behind.

"There is a weariness in people's eyes here," said a photographer who has been chronicling the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis, which struck on May 3. He spoke on condition of anonymity because access to the region is forbidden to foreign journalists.

"There's a lost feeling that you get," he said. "People are physically, mentally and emotionally exhausted. Some of them don't have the strength to start over."

After an international furor over the government's refusal to admit foreign relief workers, a tightly controlled system has been put in place, and aid is reaching much of the area, where the United Nations says 2.4 million people were affected.

The cyclone left 138,000 people dead or missing and 800,000 homeless, according to UN figures, after tremendous winds and a storm surge that resembled a tsunami.

It leveled most of the fragile thatch homes in its path, uprooted trees, swept away the livestock and fishing boats that provided a livelihood and polluted many rice fields with salt.

For those fields that survived, this year's planting season has now passed, and experts say it may be more than a year before many people see their next decent harvest.

Although some houses are being rebuilt and some fields are being worked, the delta remains a vista of ruin and debris, where human and animal bones and the last decomposing bodies still cluster at the edges of waterways.

Fantastical tales circulate among the survivors, the photographer said, weaving a tapestry of stories from this world and the next.

There is the tale of the boy who survived by clinging to the back of a crocodile, and the story of the boatload of people stranded at low tide who sat waiting on the silt for the water to rise, surrounded by stranded corpses.

There is the story of the mother who was reunited with her baby after it was swept away in a washtub, and the story of the woman who gave birth as the cyclone hit and pulled her baby from the water by its umbilical cord.

And there are the stories of wandering ghosts, whose cries for help can be heard at night in haunted places that no villager dares to enter.

Among these phantoms and traumas, international relief workers have become the survivors' lifeline, delivering aid to all but the most remote parts of the delta.

More than 1,800 visas have been issued to these workers, aid officials say, though access to the hard-hit delta is slowed by an ever-more-complicated process of permissions and paperwork.

By now, most survivors have received aid, said Andrew Kirkwood, country director for the aid group Save the Children. "But very few people have received enough assistance to get them through the next three months, and almost no one has received enough assistance to enable them to rebuild their lives."

He said the reconstruction of schools, clinics and other infrastructure, which should be well under way by now, still lagged because of delays in delivering basic emergency assistance.

The xenophobic military junta that holds Myanmar in its grip prevented large-scale foreign aid deliveries for the first three crucial weeks after the cyclone, then loosened its controls only gradually and partially. It never did allow U.S. and French naval vessels to bring in tons of aid and equipment.

But despite the early demands from around the world that the government permit open deliveries of aid, the United Nations says that nearly half the assistance pledged by foreign donors has yet to appear. Recently it said it had received $339 million in international donations, a shortfall of $300 million.

But life has always been bitter for the people of the Irrawaddy Delta, with 8 out of 10 families living in poverty even before the cyclone, according to Save the Children.

For many people, the harshness of life today may not be so very different from the harshness of the life they have always known.

"They live on a thin line, every day of every year of every decade," the photographer said. "And that is what they are doing now. They just keep going, day by day by day."