UN: Myanmar junta forcing storm victims from camps

UN: Myanmar junta forcing storm victims from camps

The Associated Press

YANGON, Myanmar (AP) — Myanmar’s military government is removing cyclone victims from refugee camps and dumping them near their devastated villages with virtually no aid supplies, the United Nations said Friday.

In an aid agency meeting, the U.N. Children’s Fund said eight camps earlier set up by the government to receive homeless victims in the Irrawaddy delta town of Bogalay had emptied as the mass clear-out of victims was stepped up.

People line up outside an aid tent in Yangon, Myanmar, Thursday, May 29, 2008 awaiting medical treatment. Aid and relief has been slow getting to affected areas and people after a cyclone hit southern Myanmar causing mass destruction and death. (AP Photo)

“The government is moving people unannounced,” said Teh Tai Ring, a UNICEF official, adding that authorities were “dumping people in the approximate location of the villages, basically with nothing.”

Camps were also being closed in Labutta, another town in the delta, a low-lying area which took the brunt of Cyclone Nargis nearly a month ago.

About 2.4 million are homeless and hungry after the May 2-3 cyclone hit Myanmar, also known as Burma.

Centralizing the stricken people in the centers made it easier for aid agencies to deliver emergency relief since many villages in the delta can only be reached by boat or very rough roads.

Aid workers who have reached some of the remote villages say little remains that could sustain their former residents: houses are destroyed, livestock has perished and food stocks have virtually run out. Medicines are nonexistent.

The UNICEF official said that some of the refugees are “being given rations and then they are forced to move.” But others were being denied such aid because they had lost their government identity cards.

A senior U.N. official in Bangkok, Thailand, said he could not confirm the camp closures but added that any such forced movement was “completely unacceptable.”

“People need to be assisted in the settlements and satisfactory conditions need to created before they can return to their place of origins,” Terje Skavdal, head of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, told reporters. “Any forced or coerced movement of people is completely unacceptable.”

There had been previous reports of forced removals, but on a scattered basis. In some cases, people were reportedly sent away ahead of visits by foreign dignitaries, and in others people were sent from schools that were to be used as voting places during a recent national referendum on a new constitution. People were also cleared out of some Buddhist temples where they had taken shelter, but in those cases apparently had been transferred to official refugee camps.

Human rights and aid groups also complained Friday that Myanmar’s military government was still hindering the free flow of international help for victims.

Some foreign aid staff were still waiting for permission to enter the Irrawaddy delta while the regime continues to review entry requests for 48 hours, the groups said.

One foreign aid worker attending Friday’s meeting said that in practice it took at least four days to obtain permission from the Ministry of Social Welfare to travel to the delta.

“The longer you want to stay, the longer it takes,” he said, declining to give his name for fear of government reprisals.

“The Burmese government is still using red tape to obstruct some relief efforts when it should accept all aid immediately and unconditionally,” the U.S.-based Human Rights Watch said in a statement.

The International Red Cross was waiting for permission to send 30 of its foreign staffers into the delta.

The regime has also barred naval vessels from the United States, France and Great Britain from entering Myanmar’s waters, leaving them to wait offshore with their loads of humanitarian supplies. The French have been forced to dock in Thailand and turn over the relief goods to the United Nations for onward shipment into Myanmar.

“By still delaying and hampering aid efforts … the generals are showing that, even during a disaster, oppression rules,” Human Rights Watch said.

While welcoming millions of dollars from the international community for cyclone relief, Myanmar lashed out at donors for not pledging enough. State-run media decried donors on Thursday for only pledging up to $150 million — a far cry from the $11 billion the junta said it needed to rebuild.

The isolationist government agreed to allow foreign aid workers in after U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon met with leader Senior Gen. Than Shwe last weekend.

But delays continue, Human Rights Watch said.

Myanmar’s government says the cyclone killed 78,000 people and left another 56,000 missing.

The country’s xenophobic leaders are leery of foreign aid workers and international agencies, worrying they could weaken the junta’s powerful grip. The generals also don’t want their people to see aid coming directly from countries like the U.S., which the regime has long treated as a hostile power.

In Singapore on Friday, Sen. Joseph Lieberman said regional superpowers India and China should exert their influence over Myanmar’s military junta to push it toward democracy. Lieberman, who is in Singapore to attend a security conference, said he and other senators have met with the ambassadors of the two countries in Washington to convey this message.

Myanmar 30/05 13:39 CET Myanmar cyclone refugees evicted from camps printable versionbigger textsmaller text

Thousands of cyclone survivors in Myanmar face a new threat, from their own government. A month after the devastating storm, the military junta is forcing them out of their refugee camps. Reports from the Irrawaddy Delta say the destitute people have been told to go home, even though they have nothing to return to.

Fewer than half of Myanmar’s two and a half million refugees are thought to have received any aid at all. And the junta’s attitudes towards foreign help seem to be hardening. The state-run Kyemon newspaper said the refugees can survive by themselves, and do not need what it called “chocolate bar” donations from abroad.

Junta evicts families from government camps

* State media rail against “chocolate bar” foreign aid

* More than 4,000 schools affected by cyclone

KYAUKTAN, Myanmar, May 30 (Reuters) – Myanmar’s junta started evicting destitute families from government-run cyclone relief centres on Friday, apparently out of concern the ‘tented villages’ might become permanent.

“It is better that they move to their homes where they are more stable,” a government official said at one camp where people have been told to clear out by 4 pm (0930 GMT). “Here, they are relying on donations and it is not stable.”

Locals and aid workers said 39 camps in the immediate vicinity of Kyauktan, 30 km (19 miles) south of Yangon, were being cleared out as part of a general eviction plan.

“We knew we had to go at some point but we had hoped for more support,” 21-year-old trishaw driver Kyaw Moe Thu said as he trudged out of the camp with his five brothers and sisters.

The youngest, a 2-½ year girl named Moe Win Kyah, was sheltered by the others under a pair of black umbrellas.

They had been given 20 bamboo poles and some tarpaulins to help rebuild their lives in the Irrawaddy delta, where 134,000 people were left dead or missing by Cyclone Nargis on May 2.

“Right now, we are disappointed,” Kyaw Moe Thu said. “We were promised 30 poles by the government. They told us we will get rice each month, but right now we have nothing.”

Four weeks after the disaster, the United Nations says fewer than one in two of the 2.4 million people affected by the cyclone have received any form of help from either the government, or international or local aid groups.

Rumours are flying around the international aid community in Yangon that the evictions are occurring in state-run refugee centres across the delta.

The U.N., which has local and foreign aid workers in the delta, said it did not know if that was the case.

“We certainly don’t endorse premature return to where there are no services, and any forced or coerced movement is completely unacceptable,” U.N. spokeswoman Amanda Pitt said in Bangkok.

The evictions come a day after official media in the former Burma lashed out at offers of foreign aid, criticising donors’ demands for access to the delta and saying cyclone victims could “stand by themselves”. “The people from Irrawaddy can survive on self-reliance without chocolate bars donated by foreign countries,” the Kyemon newspaper said in a Burmese-language editorial.

The media is tightly controlled by the army and is believed to reflect the thinking of the top generals, who until now have shown signs of growing, albeit grudging, acceptance of outside cyclone assistance.

SCHOOLS DESTROYED

Nearly a week after junta leader Than Shwe promised to allow in “all” legitimate foreign aid workers, 45 remaining U.N. visa requests had been approved on Wednesday, but red tape is still hampering access to the delta.

“It’s particularly important that the Red Cross and the international NGOs are granted timely, free and unfettered access to the delta,” Terje Skavdal, a U.N. humanitarian co-ordinator, told a news conference in the Thai capital.

He said it now took only two days for U.N staff to get clearance for the delta, instead of two weeks, but other aid workers were still facing obstacles.

The government has said the rescue and relief effort is largely over and it is focused on reconstruction.

Around Kyauktan, authorities are moving displaced people out of schools ahead of the start of a new term in June. But aid workers said that could be delayed by a month in the delta.

The U.N. children’s agency, UNICEF, said more than 4,000 basic schools were either damaged or destroyed, affecting 1.1 million students, according to government figures.

“I would put recovery and restoration of education services as a priority while relief activities are intensifying,” UNICEF regional director Anupama Rao Singh told reporters in Bangkok after visiting the delta.

“I think we are dealing with a humanitarian disaster of pretty much the same magnitude” as the 2004 tsunami which killed around 168,000 in Indonesia’s Aceh.

However, the level of aid to isolated army-ruled Myanmar stands in stark contrast to the tsunami, when governments around the world promised $2 billion within the first week.

The New Light of Myanmar accused donors of being stingy, noting that the United Nations’ “flash appeal” was still short of its $201 million target nearly four weeks after the disaster, which left 134,000 dead or missing.

The tone of the editorial is at odds with recent praise of the U.N. relief effort, but follows criticism of the junta’s extension this week of the five-year house arrest of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

U.S. President George W. Bush said he was “deeply troubled” by the extension and called for the more than 1,000 political prisoners to be freed. (Additional reporting by Ed Davies in BANGKOK) (Writing by Ed Cropley; Editing by Darren Schuettler and Valerie Lee)

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