[ReadingRoom] News on Burma - 15/5/08
- Junta claims a win
- Red Cross: Burma cyclone death toll could go up to 128K
- Authorities harass local NGOs, private donors
- NLD slams plan for May 24 referendum vote
- Cyclone survivors told to make room for voters
- 'No access' to Burma cyclone zone
- Aid-wary Burma allows medics in
- Burma seeks help from neighbors
- UN says relief effort still facing restrictions
- Burma's displaced people a long-term problem
- Photo slideshows of Cyclone Nagris
Junta claims a win
Rangoon - Chances for democracy in Burma took yet another dip on Thursday, when the military junta claimed that a resounding 92.4 per cent of voters approved the constitution written to keep the army permanently in power.
The controversial referendum - held on May 10 in the wake of the destruction wrought by Cyclone Nargis - overwhelmingly ratified a new constitution cementing the military's political power, as expected, state media reported Thursday. There are only state-controlled media in Burma.
The Commission for Holding Nationwide Referendum announced that 20.7 million people, or 92.4 per cent of some 22.5 million people who voted in the referendum last Saturday, voted in favour of the constitution, according to state radio reports.
The military rulers pushed through the referendum Saturday intended to cement their political power despite international appeals to postpone the vote in the wake of Cyclone Nargis, which has killed up to 130,000 people and left another 2 million people in need of food, water, shelter and medical aid.
Although the junta postponed the vote to May 24 in 47 of the townships worst-hit by the cyclone, including much of the former capital Rangoon, it rejected international appeals to delay the controversial referendum and concentrate on providing emergency relief.
There are altogether 325 townships in Burma, a country of 57 million people.
The referendum, held without international monitors, has been cited as one of the reasons the military was reluctant to allow in foreign international aid workers last week to facilitate a multi-million-dollar disaster relief programme for the country.
"They didn't want you to be in there to witness what they are doing inside Burma," said Lian Sakhong, secretary-general of the Ethnic Nationalities Council, one of many rebel organizations based along the Thai-Burmese border.
"You would have been able to witness the cheating at the referendum, which was reported to be huge," Sakhong told a press conference in Bangkok.
The referendum process, held under the strict control of the military masters, has been called a sham by human rights activists and Western democracies for being neither free nor fair.
The regime used both intimidation and vote-buying to assure the populace voted yes, observers said. In February the ruling junta passed a law that outlawed public criticism of the constitution.
Scores of opposition politicians were arrested under the law for urging people to vote no.
Many civil servants, including teachers, soldiers, police, and members of the Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA) - the military's mass organization - were required to cast their votes in advance, and most were told by their bosses to vote yes, sources said. Others were enticed to do so.
In the weeks leading up to the referendum, the military made clear through billboard and media campaigns that they expected the people to vote yes.
The referendum was on a new constitution, drafted by a military-appointed forum, which will essentially allow the military control over future elected governments through a system of appointees in both the upper and lower legislative houses.
Burma has been under military rule for the past 46 years. The current junta has promised a general election in 2010, but given its constitutional control over both houses, prospects for true democracy remain dim. (dpa)
Red Cross: Burma cyclone death toll could go up to 128K
AP: Wed 14 May 2008
The Red Cross says the death toll in Burma's cyclone may be between 68,833 and 127,990.
The government revised its death toll Wednesday to 38,491 and the number of missing to 27,838. But the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies said the number of people killed is probably between 68,833 and 127,990.
The Red Cross said it arrived at the figure by pooling and extrapolating assessments by 22 other aid groups and organizations in 58 townships. The total affected population is estimated to be between 1.6 million and 2.5 million, it said.
U.N. humanitarian chief John Holmes also reported the same number for the affected population. He said the death toll could be "in the region of 100,000 or even more."
The report issued Wednesday noted that "official government casualty figures remain significantly lower."
The government says 34,273 people were killed and 27,838 are missing in the May 2-3 Cyclone Nargis.
The Red Cross figure is the highest reported so far. The U.N. has said the number of dead could be between 60,000 and 100,000.
Authorities harass local NGOs, private donors - Min Lwin
Irrawaddy: Wed 14 May 2008
Burma's military government is hindering and even blocking local people from sending aid to the victims of cyclone Nargis, adding to the frustration and anger sweeping the nation.
Donors have contacted The Irrawaddy, complaining that security forces monitored their activities and interrogated them when they attempted to hand over food and water to cyclone survivors in Rangoon and the Irrawaddy delta.
Some said they had been told all aid must be channeled through the military. Rangoon sources said the local authorities and members of the junta-backed Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA) intimidated private donors attempting to deliver relief supplies. Donors were reportedly ordered to hand over the aid to USDA members.
In Mandalay, Monywa and Sagaing, residents are being told by the local authorities not to collect donations.
In Rangoon, one volunteer, Soe Kyi, was stopped by local officials in suburban Thaketa Township, and asked if he had obtained permission from authorities in Naypyidaw to distribute aid.
When members of the Rangoon-based private charity "Free Funeral Services Society (FFSS)" attempted to buy dried fish for cyclone victims in Rangoon's Bayint Naung wholesale market, they were approached by plainclothes military officers, who also questioned a shop owner.
The FFSS is led by a popular regime opponent, actor-turned-social worker Kyaw Thu, who earned government displeasure and a month's jail sentence when he joined in last September's demonstrations.
The FFSS normally provides free funerals for people who can't afford the cost, but since the cyclone struck it has diverted its energies to helping the cyclone victims.
Apart from putting obstacles in the way of aid deliveries, local authorities are harassing survivors, forcing them to leave the refuge of monasteries. Soldiers took part in ejecting homeless people from monasteries in Rangoon's Hlaingtharyar Township.
Meanwhile, contracts are already being issued to local companies to rebuild destroyed houses, government buildings and schools in the Irrawaddy delta.
The Htoo Trading Company, favored by the military regime, received several contracts to rebuild schools and houses in Bogalay and Dedaye townships.
Htoo Company is owned by Tay Za, a wealthy tycoon who is among the regime cronies on a US government sanctions list. Tay Za has been visiting cyclone-hit areas of the Irrawaddy delta to inspect reconstruction sites.
NLD slams plan for May 24 referendum vote - Wai Moe
Irrawaddy: Wed 14 May 2008
The National League for Democracy (NLD) has condemned the Burmese military government's plan to go ahead with the constitutional referendum on May 24 in the devastated areas affected by Cyclone Nargis.
The NLD, one of Burma's leading opposition groups, said in a statement on Wednesday the party has information that the junta will go ahead with its plan to hold the referendum on May 24 in 40 townships in Rangoon Division and seven townships in the Irrawaddy delta.
"It is not the right time to hold the referendum in the cyclone-hit region because people are dying and still struggling. Diseases are spreading day by day," said an NLD statement. "The State Peace and Development Council [the official junta title] has responsibility for the lives of the survivors."
The NLD said the government should concentrate on humanitarian work among the survivors.
A member of the NLD disaster committee, Aye Kyu, who is now in Laputta, said diarrhea is widespread in the township and many people, especially children, are living in trauma.
A Burmese doctor who recently returned from Laputta, one of the worst-hit areas, told The Irrawaddy on Wednesday that up to seven survivors died every day at emergency relief camps in the town. Homeless survivors are also staying at monasteries, temples and schools. About 100,000 survivors are in the town, he said.
The doctor said authorities seized medicine and medical equipment from volunteer Burmese medical workers in Laputta. The medicine and equipment were provided by Merlin, an international nongovernmental organization (INGO) operating in Burma.
A staffer from an INGO in Rangoon that works on aid operations, said, "We can't give any support directly to the community."
The junta-backed newspaper, The New Light of Myanmar, on Wednesday published photographs showing survivors giving the two-handed sign of respect, usually reserved for the Buddha, to Lt-Gen Myint Swe, who inspected a relief camp in Hlaingthayar Township in Rangoon.
The European Union urged the Burmese military junta on Tuesday to allow relief supplies and aid workers access to the 1.5 million people facing hunger and disease in the aftermath of cyclone.
France, Britain and Germany have called for governments to deliver aid to cyclone victims without the military junta's agreement, if necessary.
"We have called for 'responsibility to protect' to be applied in the case of Burma," the French junior Human Rights Minister, Rama Yade, said on Tuesday.
Cyclone survivors told to make room for voters - Nem Davies
Mizzima News: Wed 14 May 2008
Cyclone survivors in a Rangoon suburb have been ordered out of a temporary shelter so that it can be used as a polling station on May 24.
The 57 people whose homes were destroyed are staying in a community hall (dama joun) in San-Yeik-Nyein Quarter, South Dagon Township, Rangoon Division. The hall is normally used for religious purposes and ceremonies such as weddings.
But the survivors were told to move out four days before the constitutional referendum, which was postponed in areas hard hit by Cyclone Nargis.
"May 20th is the last day to move out of the place, because they want to use the building as a ballot station," said a person taking care of the survivors.
Local authorities informed the person five days ago when they brought food donations for the homeless. "But they did not say anything about where to move to. We have to wait for some days because it is still many days until the referendum," the person said.
Despite widespread damage from Cyclone Nargis, the junta-backed Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA) and Township Quarter level authorities have been collecting "advance votes" from some residents in South Dagon. The advance voting began the day after the cyclone.
The door-to-door advance polling was originally intended as a convenience for the elderly and those planning to travel out of the city. But now everyone is asked to cast a ballot ahead of the official poll date, residents said.
Eligible voters have to cast ballots whether they want to or not, yet they have no choice but to say 'yes.' "It's not secret. You have to give your ballot to the authorities," a Dagon Township resident said.
USDA members Saw Naing, Tin Maung Than, Nyi Kyaw, Myint Than and Aung Myint Htay are collecting votes in this way, residents said.
"The authorities are only thinking about holding on to power and they do not think about helping people those who are in trouble and mentally disturbed by the cyclone," said a resident from Sanchaung Township in Rangoon Division.
Many Rangoon residents are frustrated at the junta's priorities. "I would not vote for them," said a resident from Sanchaung Township. "I could not support them when we do not have food at home."
The government-owned newspaper, the New Light of Myanmar, reported Wednesday that 34,273 people were killed, 1,403 people were injured and 27,838 people were missing after the cyclone, which struck May 2 and 3. But aid workers and UN agencies put the death toll at more than 100,000.
The junta went ahead with a nationwide referendum to approve a draft constitution on May 10, but delayed voting in 47 townships in Rangoon and the worst-hit Irrawaddy Delta regions.
Critics say the charter will perpetuate military power, but the junta says it is part of a transition to a "disciplined democracy."
'No access' to Burma cyclone zone
BBC News: Wed 14 May 2008
Burma's junta has tightened access to areas hit by Cyclone Nargis, despite pleas to allow in foreign aid workers.
A UN official says the regime has erected more checkpoints to ensure foreigners cannot reach affected areas.
The latest official figures put the death toll at almost 38,500 with 27,838 more missing, state radio said.
The UN says up to 2.5m people need urgent aid and has called a meeting of regional and donor nations to discuss "all options" on aid.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Wednesday's meeting of donors and the Association of South-East Asian Nations would discuss the "mobilisation of resources and aid workers".
He "regretted" the UN had spent much of its time arranging rather than delivering help.
"Even though the [Burmese] government has shown some sense of flexibility, at this time it's far, far too short," he said.
Meanwhile, forecasters say another cyclone is forming off Burma's coast.
The Hawaii-based Joint Typhoon Warning Center said on its website that "a significant tropical cyclone" could develop in the next 24 hours.
Aid agencies are warning that the ruling generals' refusal to sanction a major international relief effort will cause more deaths.
Chris Kaye, the Burma director for the UN's World Food Programme, said the generals were trying to ensure no foreigners were allowed into the affected areas by beefing up security on checkpoints.
"There is absolutely no progress in getting foreign experts out into the field," he said.
Undercover reporter says aid is still in short supply in Burma
Aid agencies fear the death toll could be far higher than official estimates.
The Red Cross said it had studied figures from 22 organisations and warned the toll could be as high as 128,000.
UN humanitarian affairs chief John Holmes said the organisation had revised up its estimate of 1.5m people "severely affected" by the cyclone to between 1.6m and 2.5m.
Thai leader Samak Sundaravej held talks with the junta, but failed to broker a deal on access for foreigners.
Mr Samak flew to Rangoon for talks with Burmese Prime Minister Thein Sein, aimed at persuading the junta to allow more foreign aid workers access.
But he said Gen Thein was adamant the military needed no outside help.
"He insisted that his country with 60 million people has a government, its people and the private sector to tackle the problem by themselves," Mr Samak told reporters in Bangkok after his day trip to Burma.
EU envoy Louis Michel is heading for Burma for a three-day visit, where he says he will urge the generals "to be more open-minded and more understanding".
But he told the AFP news agency that his chances of success were "slight".
The continuing diplomatic efforts come amid more dire warnings of the consequences of the cyclone.
The UN's food agency says Burma will face food shortages if farmers cannot return to their fields in the next 90 days.
"If we are not able to plant before the monsoon, we will have a serious shortage of rice in the country," said Leon Gouws, of the Food and Agriculture Organisation.
Another UN body, the International Organisation for Migration, says it may already be too late to save the many victims who are in need of aid.
"Maybe we should already be looking at rebuilding projects instead of emergency relief," said the IOM's Chris Lom.
"There's been an opportunity lost - in terms of immediate response, maybe we're too late for that."
Residents have told the BBC's Burmese service how private citizens have been trying to distribute water and supplies from their own cars - but soldiers have been confiscating the goods.
A BBC correspondent in Burma described aid delivery as "unco-ordinated and piecemeal".
He said one devastated village - with one-quarter of its 400 houses left standing - had received just one bag of rice from the government.
Aid-wary Burma allows medics in
AFP: Wed 14 May 2008
Thailand said today that Myanmar's ruling junta, which has been criticised for refusing foreign assistance in the aftermath of a cyclone, would allow 30 of its doctors to go and help victims.
The Public Health Ministry said the medics would depart on Friday and stay for two weeks in Myanmar, whose southwestern Irrawaddy Delta region was devastated in the disaster.
"We have been informed from the Myanmar foreign ministry that they will welcome 30 Thai doctors to help cyclone survivors," it said in a statement.
The team - made up of medics from the Thai Red Cross, the public health ministry, and a Bangkok hospital - will treat injured victims, work on disease prevention and offer psychological services.
Burma seeks help from neighbors
Irrawaddy: Wed 14 May 2008
Burma's junta has approved aid personnel from Bangladesh, China, India and Thailand to help its relief efforts for victims of Cyclone Nargis, while still delaying granting visas to many non-Asian experts, a United Nations official said on Wednesday.
Amanda Pitt, a spokesperson for the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), told a press conference in Bangkok: "I think they want 160 personnel from these four places, just general personnel who are able to come in to bolster the Myanmar [Burmese] government's relief efforts."
Burma's military government has given permission to a Thai medical team to enter the cyclone-devastated Irrawaddy delta.
Dr. Thawat Sutharacha of the Public Health Ministry told The Associate Press that he has received a message from the Burmese Health Ministry that says the Thai team can conduct medical work.
If the team departs as scheduled on Friday, it will be the first foreign aid group to work in the Irrawaddy delta.
The junta has declared the area off-limits to foreign relief workers.
Bangladesh, China, India and Thailand all share their border with Burma, and have been less critical of Burma's military regime than many Western democracies, some of which have imposed economic sanctions on the country to punish the junta's frequent crack downs on pro-democracy demonstrations and its refusal to allow democratic reforms.
UN says relief effort still facing restrictions - Htet Aung Kyaw
DVB: Wed 14 May 2008
A United Nations official has said that the aid situation has improved in Burma, but ongoing government restrictions mean the UN is still unable to mount a full-scale relief effort. Richard Horsey, spokesperson for the UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, said some visas had been issued to UN staff but the country needed to allow more relief experts in.
"The question is not only about visas, it also depends on access to the delta and some other cooperation like the necessary equipment and other things," Horsey said.
"Much, much more is needed, but there have been some improvements over the last day or two."
Burmese nationals who work for UN agencies have been operating in the delta since the day after the storm, but foreign nationals still need permission to leave the former capital Rangoon.
"It's very important that [international experts] can come to Yangon, but also can if necessary travel to the affected areas to provide the necessary advice and assistance," he said.
The aid effort is also being hampered by a lack of boats after 90 percent of the boats in the delta were damaged or destroyed in the cyclone.
Horsey said the World Food Programme had established logistical hubs in Labutta and Bogalay, with at least one more planned.
"These are temporary warehouses where food and other things can be stored and some offices so that the distribution can be done at the local level," he said.
"It's very important to have a logistics base not only in Yangon but also in the affected areas to [enable] an easy distribution of goods and to increase the amount of goods that can be distributed."
Horsey stressed that UN aid was being channelled to camps and settlements through the UN system and not through the government, and was then being distributed within the camps.
"Normally it should be bilateral international aid, government to government, then the Myanmar government distributing that aid," Horsey said.
"One thing is that the Myanmar Red Cross is assisting with some distribution at the local level. So maybe sometimes they are the ones who are carrying the boxes or helping to move some of the things at the very local level," he said.
"But monitoring is done by the UN, and where it is distributed is decided by the UN and so on, not handed over to the government," he said.
Horsey also responded to claims that aid supplies have been sold in markets instead of being given to cyclone survivors, saying there was so far no evidence of this.
There has been a systematic checking of the markets in Yangon by some embassies to see if there are any cases of selling aid, and also interviews with some of the traders and other people at the markets," he said.
"So far all of the major markets in Yangon have been checked, and there is no evidence yet of any aid being sold in any of the main markets in Yangon," he went on.
"Of course, it doesn't mean that it's not happening anywhere, but it does mean that it's not happening at a very high level, otherwise it would be very easy to find."
Asked about reports of another cyclone, Horsey said the UN was monitoring the situation closely and people should expect heavy rains but current reports did not suggest a cyclone.
"Of course it is the cyclone season, so this time of the year is the normal time for cyclones so we are monitoring very carefully. But at this moment there is no new cyclone," Horsey said.
"However, there is some heavy rain and maybe thunderstorms - normal situation for the monsoon period," he said.
"There will be heavy rains, so this may be a problem for the people and a problem for the roads and for aid efforts, but there is no cyclone."
Burma's displaced people a long-term problem - Dan Nicholson
WIrrawaddy: ed 14 May 2008
Somewhere from 1 to 2 million people are homeless in Burma today. The devastating impact of Cyclone Nargis was exacerbated by poor planning and inadequate warning by the Burmese military government. This is a housing crisis on the scale of the tsunami of December 26 2004, which displaced more than 1.5 million in several countries across Asia.
This situation must immediately be rectified to avoid a greater humanitarian catastrophe: the international community must press the junta to immediately remove restrictions on visa applications for relief workers, and to allow freedom of movement for expatriate relief workers, and free distribution of food supplies.
For the homeless and displaced, however, the immediate effects of the cyclone are being made more acute by the decision of the Burmese junta to delay and in some cases to seize aid being flown in and to refuse visas to staff of international relief agencies.
Beyond the immediate crisis of shelter and clean water, however, this disaster poses longer-term challenges for the international community. There are lessons for us from the relief effort of the Asian tsunami.
In Aceh, the tsunami led to a peace process which ended a decades-long civil conflict. In Sri Lanka, it contributed to the apparently permanent breakdown of the peace process, and the resumption of full-scale war between the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (or Tamil Tigers).
While it is too early to know the political ramifications of this disaster for Burma, the international community should ensure first that they do no harm through their relief efforts; that the aftermath of this disaster does not further entrench the repressive practices of the current regime.
First, if and when international aid agencies are allowed on the ground, they should try to link as much as possible with Burmese civil society. Contact between international agencies and Burmese society has the potential to open up one of the region's most closed countries - which would be welcome. Contact between the international community and many parts of the Burmese government could also prove a positive development.
Second, international humanitarian assistance must be provided in a way which respects and protects the fundamental rights to housing of those displaced. Under international law, displaced people have the right to return to their original houses and land, unless return is factually impossible. If going home is genuinely impossible, then people have the right to adequate alternative housing - close to their livelihoods, and education and health facilities, with access to clean water and sanitation. The international community must influence the reconstruction policy in Burma to reflect these rights wherever possible.
In Sri Lanka, while there was much to be pleased with in the response of the government and international community, some people displaced by the tsunami are still languishing in camps, some four years after the wave hit. Some relocation sites were poorly constructed, or in locations where communities could not make a living. Inevitably, people leave these sites and find themselves displaced once again.
There is every reason for grave concern about ongoing displacement in Burma, since the State Peace and Development Council (or SPDC) - Burma's military junta - has a terrible record in this regard. Before Cyclone Nargis hit, there were already an estimated one million people displaced Burmese, mostly from Burma's many ethnic minorities.
This displacement was caused by the Burmese military's counterinsurgency tactics in the civil conflicts it is fighting and by their policy of military self-sufficiency, where poor villagers are forced to provide food, labor and land to the military. Development projects, such as dams, mines and oil pipelines have also caused mass displacement and other violations of human rights. Some communities have been displaced more than 100 times in the past 50 years.
These displaced people, who are located both inside the country and in camps around its borders, are supported by a remarkable group of organizations, like the Thai Burma Border Consortium. The needs of these people - and their right to one day return home - should not be forgotten today.
These past few days show the importance of the role of the international community in responding to the crisis in Burma, and the difficulties they will face in dealing with the Burmese government. There will still be much to be done once tents, food and clean water are on the ground.
These past few days also remind us in the starkest possible way that the basic rights of the Burmese people, including their rights to housing, can only be protected through sustained political change in that country.
* Dan Nicholson is an Australian lawyer who coordinates the Asia and Pacific Programme of the Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions (COHRE), a Geneva-based international human rights organization. COHRE's 2007 report on Forced Displacement in Burma is available at www.cohre.org/burma
Photo slideshows of Cyclone Nagris
Wed 14 May 2008
Organizations working with victims of Cyclone Nargis
Wed 14 May 2008
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