Lives ebb away as Myanmar’s military sidelines vital aid

May 14th, 2008 - 9:11 am ICT by admin  

By Simon Parry
Myawaddy (Myanmar), May 14 (DPA) It was supposed to be a moment of hope, a breakthrough in the troubled international aid effort for the hundreds of thousands of Myanmarese victims of Cyclone Nargis. Instead, I watched as the delivery of the first overland aid convoy was received with stark indifference by military officials either ill prepared or uninterested in speeding the aid to those in need. At lunchtime Saturday, seven days after Nargis killed an estimated 100,000-plus people and left up to 1.5 million homeless, Myanmar’s junta finally allowed in two UN refugee agency (UNHCR)trucks carrying 20 tons of tents and plastic sheeting, enough to shelter 10,000 victims.

It had taken five days of pleading and cajoling. But at 1 pm, to the undisguised delight of the aid workers, the aid was finally allowed in from Mae Sot in northern Thailand on condition no aid workers were on board.

Once across the border, the precious cargo was in military hands. UN staff prayed it would be rushed to the stricken Irrawaddy Delta where every hour is costing lives.

Sharing some of their hope, I defied a ban on foreign journalists and crossed into Myanmar with the trucks. What I witnessed was a debacle. The moment the trucks were out of sight of the border post, they were directed off the road and along a three kilometre dusty track to a semi-deserted monastery and pagoda.

As our taxi bumped along behind the trucks, I still expected to find army trucks and ranks of troops ready to unload the cargo and take it to the cyclone-hit communities. Instead, the cargo was received by a languid young major who was with only two other soldiers.

I watched as they waved the trucks to parking bays without looking to see what they contained, then ambled back to a reception area to resume the card-playing and tea-drinking that had been interrupted.

Dumbfounded, I waited to see when the relief operation would begin. But nothing happened, just elderly monks and casually dressed government officials wandering around, seeming to ignore the UN trucks.

My presence had been noticed, so I walked up and introduced myself and congratulated them on securing the aid. When would it be leaving for the disaster area, I asked?

The major, Myat Hdut Aye, explained that nothing more would be happening for the time being. “It will have to wait here until tomorrow,” he said, gesturing to the trucks. “Then it will be transferred by road to Yangon. We can’t do anything more today.”

I asked gently why it wasn’t being moved immediately. Silent for a moment, he blushed before replying: “We need a big truck to carry all these things and it has to come from Yangon.” So when would it arrive? He looked a little more uncomfortable and said: “We hope it will be here in time to leave early tomorrow.”

As we chatted, a senior officer, who had been sleeping inside, came to the doorstep and began quizzing my driver-interpreter: “Who is this man? Is he with the UNHCR? Why is he taking pictures?”

We shook hands, retreated to our car and drove quickly back to Myawaddy, across the Moei River from Mae Sot, where it was soon apparent why so little attention was being given to the arrival of the aid.

Three kilometres from the idle aid trucks, scores of rifle-toting soldiers were patrolling five polling stations for the referendum on constitutional reform - held in spite of international entreaties to delay the vote and focus on cyclone relief.

Those in Myawaddy brave enough to risk arrest by speaking to me said the heavy army presence was meant to intimidate people into voting “yes,” in line with the junta’s wishes.

“Everyone is watched and anyone who votes ‘no’ has been told they will be thrown in prison Sunday morning,” a market trader said. Except for the soldiers, the polling stations were deserted.

“There are thousands of soldiers in Myawaddy and many military trucks that could transport the aid,” a 51-year-old restaurant owner told me bitterly. “But this regime does not care about saving people. They only care about saving themselves.”

The town many have escaped the cyclone’s wrath, but the storm’s impact was being felt here and across the country. “People are too hungry to even think about politics,” another man said. “The price of rice has more than doubled in the past week and cooking oil has trebled.”

The dismal reception for the aid convoy was in stark contrast to the hard work and optimism displayed on the Thai side of the border. “Officials in Burma have insisted on certain things and we are trying to do things the way they want us to,” the UNHCR’s Tan said.

“For us, the most important thing is to get the material in and to distribute it to the people who need it as quickly as we can,” she said.

The aid eventually arrived in Yangon on Monday, which was “better than expected,” said Tan.

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