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[ReadingRoom] News on Burma - 27/5/08

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  • CHAN Beng Seng
    1.. Unbelievably popular 2.. Burma arrests 20 for supporting Suu Kyi 3.. Both hurt by tragedy, China lights a path for Burma 4.. Myanmar monks beat controls to
    Message 1 of 1 , May 27, 2008
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      1. Unbelievably popular
      2. Burma arrests 20 for supporting Suu Kyi
      3. Both hurt by tragedy, China lights a path for Burma
      4. Myanmar monks beat controls to provide aid
      5. $100 million offered to Myanmar
      6. Few aid workers in the Delta, say aid groups
      7. Burma's navy suffers strategic losses
      8. Burma bans top Western journalist, deports another
      9. The prisoner who won't go away
      10. Did Cyclone Nargis Kill 300,000 People?

      Unbelievably popular
      BangkokPost: 27/5/08

      Rangoon - The Burmese junta claimed on Monday that an extraordinary 92.94 per cent of the survivors of Cyclone Nargis supposedly voted "yes" for a new constitution to perpetuate military rule in the country.

      State media - there is no other kind in Burma, "reported" that postponed polling in a national referendum was held last Saturday in 47 townships hardest hit by Cyclone Nargis, which slammed into the central coast and biggest city on May 2-3.

      The cyclone left at least 133,000 dead or missing and about 2.4 million in need of the food, water, shelter and medicines. But they turned out en masse to vote for the junta.

      Anecdotal evidence suggests that the people living in the cyclone devastated areas have little reason to support the government, which has been blamed for hampering an international disaster relief effort for the storm victims.

      Since the voting and vote-counting were totally controlled by the military, the polling results are deemed suspicious, if not downright fictitious.

      The government decision to go ahead with its referendum on May 10, in the wake of the destruction wrought by the cyclone, was one of many complaints the international community voiced against the ruling junta's mismanagement of the disaster relief effort.

      The vote was delayed in 47 townships hardest hit by the storm, that has affected up to 2.4 million people, especially those living in the former capital of Rangoon and the Irrawaddy delta.

      According to the government's count, some 92.4 per cent of the populace voted in favour of the charter on May 10.

      The lead-up to the referendum was marred by a nationwide "vote yes" propaganda campaign by the government, accompanied by intimidation and arrests of opponents to the charter.

      In February the ruling junta passed a law making it illegal to publicly criticize the new constitution, which will essentially grant the military control over the upper and lower houses in an elected government.

      The regime has promised to hold an election by 2010. The results of that vote, if it is held, will also support the military junta by a huge percentage.

      The charter has barred opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi from holding office as she was married to a foreign national, the late Michael Aris, an Oxford professor.

      Authorities on Friday allowed Suu Kyi to cast an "advance vote" at her home, where she has been under house arrest for the past five years.

      The Nobel Peace Prize laureate has been under house arrest since May 30, 2003, after authorities charged her with threatening national security after pro-government thugs attacked her and her followers in Depayin, northern Burma, killing 70 Suu Kyi supporters.

      Suu Kyi is kept incommunicado in her family home and has been unable to comment publicly on the cyclone devastation or the junta's response to it.

      According to Burmese law, the government cannot keep prisoners charged with undermining national security under detention for more than five years.

      Although Suu Kyi's detention period will reach five years on Tuesday, it is widely anticipated that the ruling junta will find an excuse for extending it further.

      The government has come under harsh international criticism for impeding an international disaster relief effort for the victims of Cyclone Nargis, and for going ahead with the self-serving referendum despite the catastrophe. (dpa)

      Burma arrests 20 for supporting Suu Kyi
      BangkolPost: 27/5/08

      Rangoon (dpa) - In a move likely to spark new criticisms of the ruling junta, Burmese security forces on Tuesday arrested 20 supporters of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi who were protesting her five years of detention, eyewitnesses said.

      The arrestees, all members of the opposition party National League for Democracy (NLD) that is headed by Suu Kyi, were arrested as they marched from NLD headquarters to Suu Kyi's Rangoon home. They were taken away in two police vehicles to an unknown destination.

      Suu Kyi, a Nobel peace prize laureate, has been under house arrest for the past five years. Authorities were expected to extend her detention on Tuesday, which also marks the 18th anniversary of the NLD's landslide victory in the last general election of 1990.

      In apparent anticipation of a demonstration, Burmese authorities had parked five police cars, and one paddy car outside NLD headquarters and beefed up barricades on the road outside Suu Kyi's compound.

      Suu Kyi has been under house arrest since May 30, 2003, after authorities charged her with threatening national security after pro-government thugs attacked her and her followers in Depayin, northern Burma, killing 70 Suu Kyi supporters.

      Suu Kyi is kept incommunicado in her family home and has been unable to comment publicly on the cyclone devastation or the junta's response to it. Since returning to Burma in 1988, Suu Kyi - the daughter of Burmese independence leader Aung San, has spent 12 years under house arrest.

      According to Burmese law, the government cannot keep prisoners charged with undermining national security under detention for more than five years.

      Although Suu Kyi's detention period will reach five years Friday, it is widely anticipated that the ruling junta will find an excuse for extending it further.

      An extended detention for Suu Kyi is likely to draw a fresh outcry of criticism of the regime by western democracies, who are already in an uproar about the government's obstructive response to an international effort to provide aid to victims of Cyclone Nargis, which slammed in to the country of May 2-3, leaving at least 133,000 dead or missing and another 2.4 million in dire need of emergency assistance.

      The junta has come under harsh criticism for impeding an international disaster relief effort for the victims of the cyclone, although there were signs of it opening up at a United Nations pledging conference in Rangoon.

      The country has been ruled by military dictatorships for the past 46 years. The current regime has pariah status among western democracies for its poor human rights record and refusal to acknowledge the electoral win of the NLD some 18 years ago.

      Both hurt by tragedy, China lights a path for Burma
      BangkokPost: 27/5/08

      Tragic events can galvanise a nation in a way that brings out the best in people.

      When the event is on the scale of the Sichuan earthquake, and the nation is China, individual acts of heroism and generosity multiplied by hundreds of millions creates an atmosphere that is transformative and inspirational.

      Tragic events can also bring out the worst in a nation, as can be seen in the parallel tragedy of the cyclone in Burma, where government ineptitude, greed and paranoiac self-preservation have stifled domestic relief efforts at home while refusing or bottlenecking humanitarian aid from abroad.

      China and Burma share the stigma of being Asian countries with political systems seen as antithetical to Western values. Even savvy critics mistakenly assume that China has the kind of commanding influence over Burma that the United States has over, let's say, Iraq.

      China, to its credit and detriment, avoids the sort of active intervention that US flag-wavers favour. But China's ideological consistency on non-intervention, whatever its merits, grows less convincing as China grows.

      Growing economic clout embeds and engages China in a global economic order while heating up the hunt for scarce natural resources. Complete neutrality is not an option.

      The sheer scale and volume of China's manufacture and trade impacts life across the four seas in myriad ways, raising the spectre of economic invasion and financial intervention, not to mention the detrimental effects of trade in weapons and other things bad for human health.

      Long before it became the factory floor for the world, long before it became a prime lender to a cash-starved America, long before it had the reach to score oil deals in Sudan and Iran, China was castigated for not being open enough, global enough and capitalist enough.

      China was subject to stinging derision for its appalling poverty within recent memory. Though larger in scale, it once bore a resemblance to the Burma of today: isolated and ingrown, destitute and inept.

      In contrast, half a century ago Burma, with its booming rice exports, inspirational Buddhism, bilingual education and British infrastructure, was in a far better situation than abysmally poor China, which was still in recovery from the convulsive destruction of war, revolution and other man-made disasters.

      But China has leapt forward, greatly beyond even Mao's wildest dreams, and the world is still adjusting to this unexpected pre-eminence.

      China, too, is adjusting. The ruling Communist Party often seems anachronistic, unsure of itself and untrusting of its own people - witness the continual crackdowns on domestic media and information flow.

      The ham-fisted handling of the Tibet riots did nothing to improve China's image at home or abroad, even if its crackdown on Tibetans was not as violent as emotional journalists and bloggers, stirred by the moral prestige of the Dalai Lama and miffed by the lack of access, would have one believe.

      The anti-CNN, anti-Carrefour mood that swept across China on the coattails of the Tibet crisis had a unifying effect on Chinese popular sentiment, but was not without traces of reactionary xenophobia and Han chauvinism.

      While accusations of Western media bias and careless reporting were fairly well documented, the intolerant conspiracy theories that flowed from flawed media reports were not conducive to further conversation.

      Sadly, it took a natural disaster for China to snap out of its giddy, uneasy chauvinism and the shock of looking into the abyss for the Western press to snap out of its condescending sniping. The shock and horror of the tectonic shift knocked scales from the eyes, bringing out humility and humanity on all sides. China has shown its stoic, heroic side shorn of hubris; jaded China-watchers have shown an outpouring of sympathetic reporting shorn of pique and ulterior motive.

      More ironically yet, it took a natural disaster in China for Burma to begin to get its own act together in dealing with devastation caused by Cyclone Nargis.

      The latest TV news shows Burmese flags at half-mast, Burmese leaders making site inspections in the storm-wrecked Irrawaddy delta and a sudden improved access for foreign humanitarian aid that had been blocked too long for no good reason.

      Did this all come about because the likes of First Lady Laura Bush ridiculed Burma, singing praise of US-funded Radio Free Asia even before the floodwaters receded? Did this week's improved access of aid to Burmese cyclone victims in dire need come about because hot-headed French, British and US politicos hinted at regime change and invasion?

      Highly unlikely. Rather, it was China, struggling with its own mega-tragedy, who showed Burma how to do it right. Not by invoking Katrina or threatening bombs and waterborne invasion, but by making a positive example of itself.

      China set a no-nonsense tone of humility conducive to getting things done; it was open to foreign assistance, open to foreign journalists, foreign medical teams and, most importantly, open to the sincere concerted efforts of ordinary Chinese to help their fellow countrymen.

      It is the latter, not the nervous government officials, who are the real heroes of the relief effort; ordinary Chinese made it clear as they streamed out on the information highway and onto the muddy, broken roads of Sichuan, that they would settle for nothing less than an open and honest response.

      Beijing, to its credit, picked up on the tone set by its vanguard citizens, appropriating the symbolic power of unconditional relief, magnifying the mourning of a provincial tragedy into a unifying national event.

      Impatience with the callous intransigence of the Burmese government is understandable, but condescending nagging from politicians looking to score points was counter-productive.

      China helped Burma to open up a bit, not by angry words or preaching or threats, but just by doing the best it could under dire circumstances.

      When disaster response is as dysfunctional as it was in Burma, the inspirational nudge of a neighbour may not be enough, but China's quiet example has lit a path in the darkness, showing a possible way out.

      * Philip J Cunningham is a free-lance writer and political commentator

      Myanmar monks beat controls to provide aid
      Reuters via Doha Time: Mon 26 May 2008

      While big international donors try to persuade Myanmar's military rulers to open their doors wider to aid, small groups of volunteers are getting past army checkpoints to reach desperate survivors of Cyclone Nargis.

      Among them were Catholics and Buddhists seeking to fulfil a charitable mission under extreme circumstances three weeks after the devastating storm left 2.5mn people destitute, most of them in the hardest-hit Irrawaddy delta.

      Yesterday, larger than normal crowds of worshippers gathered at Myanmar's biggest Catholic cathedral to hear priests criticise the slow pace of aid "for our suffering countrymen".

      "We need the world to speak out because our people are dying every minute," one priest, who asked not to be identified, said at Saint Mary's Cathedral, built in 1899.

      Small groups of parishioners had been able to get past military checkpoints in recent days and visited delta fishing villages where they found starving people, he said.

      Elsewhere in Yangon, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was attending a donor pledging conference days after he received a promise from junta leader Than Shwe to allow more Western aid workers into the delta.

      Critics say the seven-day visas already granted to some foreign relief workers are too short and that some Myanmar nationals have also been barred from the delta.

      "One of the most disturbing things that we heard was even Burmese were being intimidated and harassed and prevented from helping their own people," activist Debbie Stothard, co-ordinator of the Alternative Asean Network on Burma, said in Bangkok.

      "They are also blocking communications and transportation equipment," she said.

      However, a European aid official said the generals had begun to talk about funding and the need for foreign advisers.

      "So there are the first signs of a wider opening," said the official, who declined to be named.

      Army checkpoints on the main road south to the delta stood empty on Saturday on the Maha Bandula bridge, named after the Burmese general who fought against British colonial rule.

      Army trucks carrying sacks of rice were seen driving across the Yangon river, but people in the town of Kyauktan, 30km from the former capital, said they had received little aid.

      "We are homeless. Every time something goes wrong we get help only from the monks," a woman said as she sat with hundreds of others on the wooden floor of a monastery.

      Around 252 people, including scores of children, were crammed into the small building with 10 resident monks. Parts of the roof in three corners are missing.

      Around them, the palm, coconut and betel nut trees look as if their trunks have been shorn by cannon fire. Houses and factories had their windows blasted out by the fierce winds.

      Still, Kyauktan got off relatively lightly compared with the western delta, where aid workers have yet to reach many in need.


      $100 million offered to Myanmar
      Associated Press: Mon 26 May 2008

      Yangon, Myanmar - Donor countries said they were ready to provide Myanmar with more than $100 million to help it recover from cyclone Nargis, but warned the ruling junta Sunday they will not fully open their wallets until they are provided access to the hardest-hit areas.

      UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, speaking to The Associated Press after a one-day meeting of 51 donor nations, said he believed a turning point had been reached in getting Myanmar's isolationist junta to allow foreign aid

      workers unhindered entry into the devastated Irrawaddy Delta.

      "I'm cautiously optimistic that this could be a turning point for Myanmar to be more flexible, more practical, and face the reality as it is on the ground," Ban told The AP.

      But Myanmar's leaders - and potential donors - continued to take a guarded tone.

      Myanmar's Prime Minister Lt.-Gen. Thein Sein said international aid "with no strings attached" was welcome. But he hedged on the sensitive issue of direct access, saying only civilian vessels could take part in the aid operation, and they would have to go through Yangon.

      "Relief supplies can be transported by land, air or sea," he said. "But if relief supplies have to be transported by water, civilian vessels can come in through Yangon port."

      That seemed to nix plans for U.S., British and French warships loaded with humanitarian supplies to join in the relief operation. The ships have been off Myanmar's coast for more than a week.

      Myanmar's leaders have virtually barred foreign aid workers and international agencies from the delta because they fear a large influx of foreigners could lead to political interference in their internal affairs.

      The junta is also hesitant to have its people see aid arriving directly from countries such as the United States, which it has long treated as a hostile power seeking to invade or colonize the country.

      Thein Sein, saying that about 3,000 tonnes of humanitarian supplies have already been delivered from abroad, presented a long list of urgent needs, including temporary shelters, rice seeds, fertilizer and fishing boats.

      Official estimates put the death toll about 78,000, with another 56,000 missing.

      Myanmar has estimated the economic damage at nearly $11 billion and the United Nations has launched an emergency appeal for $201 million.

      At Sunday's meeting:

      • The European Community, which has already pledged $72.5 million, offered another $26.8 million.
      • China boosted its pledge to $11 million.
      • Australia pledged $24 million.
      • The Philippines doubled its previous pledge to $20 million.
      • South Korea upped an earlier pledge for a total of $2.5 million.

      Ban said the relief operation would last at least six months.

      Few aid workers in the Delta, say aid groups - Saw Yan Naing
      Irrawaddy: Mon 26 May 2008

      Very few foreign aid workers have reached the Irrawaddy delta to help cyclone victims, two days after an agreement was made between UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Burma's head of state, Snr-Gen Than Shwe, to allow all aid workers access, said international aid groups.

      At a press conference in Bangkok on Saturday, the UN general-secretary said, "Snr-Gen Than Shwe agreed to allow all international aid workers to operate freely and without hindrance. We agreed to establish [logistics hubs incorporating] air, sea and road links to the most affected areas.

      "The Myanmar [Burmese] government appears to be moving toward the right direction … Some international aid workers and NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) have already gone into the regions of the Irrawaddy delta without any problem."

      Paul Risley, a spokesperson for the World Food Programme (WFP) in Bangkok, told The Irrawaddy on Monday that three foreign relief workers from WFP have arrived in the cyclone-ravaged delta since Saturday and WFP were planning to deploy more to the area.

      "On Saturday, WFP sent one international aid worker from Rangoon to Pyapon and Bogalay and no problems were reported, he said. "Two others traveled today to Bogalay and other places in the delta. Tomorrow, three international aid workers will travel to Laputta."

      WFP said it only had 10 international staff and 200 local staff in Rangoon before Cyclone Nargis devastated the region on May 2-3, but the UN group said it would deploy international staff to operate long-term aid projects in the stricken delta region.

      A total of 22 visas have been granted to WFP international staff since the cyclone struck and there are currently 29 national staff members deployed in affected areas outside Rangoon, according to the organization.

      Risley said that WFP are not experiencing problems traveling to the delta and that aid supplies had reached the hands of some cyclone survivors, though not enough.

      "Last Friday, more than 500,000 cyclone victims in the Irrawaddy delta received food at least once. However, much more food needs to be provided. We want to feed people every day. Most people haven't received any food yet," he added.

      WFP has established two sub-offices in the Irrawaddy delta - in Laputta and Bogalay - and has relocated national staff members from the north to the affected areas in the south to step up its response capacity, according to the group.

      Veronique Terrasse, a communications officer for Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in Bangkok, said that about eight foreign workers from her organization had reached the Irrawaddy delta, although most foreign workers were still staying in Rangoon. MSF currently has 49 foreign aid workers in Burma.

      Meanwhile, in Bangkok, Richard Horsey, a spokesperson for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), said "a number" of the UN's international experts have arrived in affected areas.

      "It is so important to have agreement not only on national staff traveling to the delta without problems, but international staff need to be able to travel there too," said Horsey."

      During his visit to Burma last week, Ban stopped at Shwedagon Pagoda, Burma's holiest Buddhist shrine and made a religious offering. "The United Nations and the whole international community stands ready to help you overcome this tragedy," he said.

      "That is why I am here," added Ban. "The main purpose of my coming to Myanmar is to demonstrate my solidarity and bring a message of hope."

      Burma's navy suffers strategic losses - Min Lwin
      Irrawaddy: Mon 26 May 2008

      Cyclone Nargis hit Burma's Panmawaddy Navy Base on Hainggyi Island at the mouth of the Bassein River, destroying military buildings and a reconnaissance station, according to navy sources.

      Burma's navy chief, Admiral Soe Thein, on Monday toured various sites on Hainggyi Island, according to the state-run The New Light of Myanmar.

      No figures were given for naval personnel dead or injured, or the number of family members dead or injured. And unknown number of personnel and family members are reportedly missing.

      The Hainggyi Island naval base major played a strategically important role in patrolling the rivers of the Irrawaddy delta and guarding the Coco Islands, the site of a Chinese signal intelligence unit that monitors ship movement in the eastern Indian Ocean, especially shipping routes between the Bay of Bengal and the Strait of Malacca.

      The Hainggyi Island navy base was established in the early 1990s with Chinese military assistance to provide security for Great Coco Island and Little Coco Island, just north of the Indian-held Andaman Islands, where the electronic intelligence stations are located.

      Speaking to The Irrawaddy on Monday, a sergeant with the No1 Strategic Naval Force (Sit Byu Ha Yay Yin) in Rangoon said the cyclone swept over the Panmawaddy naval command where more than 1,500 Burmese navy personnel were stationed. About 2,000 family members also lived on the island, he said.

      No 26 Naval Flotilla and No 27 Training Unit were extensively damaged by the Category 3 storm, according to the source. No 21 Naval Administrative Unit, No 22 Naval Support Unit and No 24 Naval Ordnance Unit were also damaged.

      The vessels at the Panmawaddy Naval base are grouped under the No 2 Strategic Naval Force (Sit Bu Ha Yay Yin Su 2).

      A former navy officer who was previously stationed at the Irrawaddy Naval base in Rangoon said the cyclone damaged the main navy dockyard there, where facilities include ship repair. The area is also the home of a navy ordnance company at Thilawah in Thanlyin Township, where virtually all naval ordnance is stored. The Naval Training Centre at Thanlyin, across the Pegu River from Rangoon, was also damaged.

      When the military seized power in 1988, the junta embarked on a major upgrade of navy forces, which included the development of existing bases at Sittwe near the Bangladeshi border and at Mergui near the Thai border.

      The Burmese navy was formed in 1940 and played a small, but active role in Allied operations against the Japanese during World War II. The navy played a key role in the government's fight against ethnic insurgent groups and the Burma Communist Party in the delta area.

      In addition, the navy performs surveillance activities, such as monitoring fish poaching, smuggling, insurgent movements and pirate activities. Burma's navy is made up of Chinese and North Korean built ships.

      Burma bans top Western journalist, deports another - Jim Andrews
      Associated Press: Mon 26 May 2008

      The Burmese regime on Sunday banned the prominent Swedish author and journalist Bertil Lintner from accompanying a Swedish government delegation to Rangoon.

      Lintner, author of six books on Burma and a leading authority on the country, had been invited by the Stockholm government to join two other Swedish journalists on a two-day visit to Rangoon, and possibly Naypyidaw, in a delegation led by Minister of International Development Cooperation Gunilla Carlsson.

      Carlsson and her delegation attended Sunday's international aid conference in Rangoon.

      Lintner is correspondent in Southeast Asia for the Swedish daily Svenska Dagbladet and also writes for other publications, including The Irrawaddy. He frequently presides over conferences on Burma in the US, Europe, Asia and Australia.

      One day before he was due to join the Stockholm delegation in Bangkok for the flight to Rangoon he was told his name had been struck from the list of participants by the Burmese authorities. No reason was given - "But it didn't really surprise me," said Lintner, an outspoken critic of the Burmese regime and its repressive policies.

      Lintner said he was told by Burmese diplomats about 20 years ago that he had been put on the country's black list of unwanted foreigners following the publication of his books "Land of Jade," an account of a trek of more than 2,000 kilometers through northern Burma, and "Outrage: Burma's Struggle for Democracy," a blistering account of the military regime's brutal rule,

      Last Wednesday, another leading journalist and authority on Burma, Britain's Andrew Marshall, was deported from Rangoon, together with his American photographer. Both underwent several hours of interrogation before being put aboard a flight to Bangkok.

      "This is the reality behind the regime's promises to become more open to the international community," said Lintner. "They're just empty promises."

      The prisoner who won't go away - Aung Zaw
      Irrawaddy: Mon 26 May 2008

      In military-ruled Burma, citizens must be prepared to spend years behind bars for discussing politically sensitive issues. For visiting dignitaries, the penalty is not quite as harsh, but the ban on talking politics is every bit as absolute.

      During his recent visits to Burma, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon was careful to respect the generals' reticence about any subject that touched upon their claims to legitimacy, lest he leave the country empty-handed.

      This came as no surprise. After all, as political activists in Rangoon joked, Ban was a "guest of the state" - like the thousands of political prisoners who have experienced the junta's hospitality over the past twenty years.

      Of course, after weeks of being spurned by the regime's reclusive leader, Snr-Gen Than Shwe, Ban probably felt lucky just to have a chance to discuss the matter at hand: the devastation in the Irrawaddy delta, where hundreds of thousands of people were still at risk three weeks after Cyclone Nargis.

      To get Than Shwe to listen, Ban knew that he and his team had to be careful to avoid one taboo topic in particular. If he had so much as mentioned the name of Aung San Suu Kyi in the presence of Than Shwe or in front of a TV camera, last week's meeting in Naypyidaw would never have taken place.

      Than Shwe's personal dislike for the Nobel laureate is an open secret. Foreign ambassadors who have met with the junta leader to give their credentials have been asked to leave after they uttered her name.

      After a two-hour meeting with Burma's paramount leader, Ban finally got the green light for "all aid workers," regardless of nationality, to be allowed to deliver aid to the delta region. But it remains to be seen if the regime will keep its promise.

      Ban had no choice but to express optimism. "I had a very good meeting with Snr-Gen Than Shwe and particularly on the aid workers," he said with his characteristic mild-mannered smile.

      Even after leaving Burma, Ban was careful to stay on message. At a press conference in Bangkok, he was asked if the UN's position on the release of Suu Kyi and other political prisoners had changed, given his silence on this issue.

      "I make it quite clear that the United Nations' position vis-à-vis the democratization process of Myanmar remains unchanged," he replied.

      He added: "I'm going to have my special envoy, Mr [Ibrahim] Gambari, continue his work as my special envoy to help facilitate the democratization of Myanmar [Burma]. I hope the Myanmar authorities will keep their commitment to the seven-point democratization process."

      He went on to say that he would return to these issues "in the near future." At no point did he mention Suu Kyi.

      No doubt the UN chief was concerned that Than Shwe's promise to allow international relief workers into the country could be abruptly reversed if the generals detected even a hint of political meddling. So for now, Suu Kyi and the issues she represents remain on the back burner.

      But at Sunday's donors' meeting in Rangoon, where representatives of governments and aid organizations gathered to pledge assistance to the victims of Cyclone Nargis, Suu Kyi was not far from people's minds, according to one Western ambassador who attended.

      This was not due to a peculiar preoccupation with the well-being of Burma's most famous political prisoner. Ironically, it was the junta's fixation with her, and particularly its need to keep her out of the spotlight, which has once again forced the world to take notice of her.

      At midnight on May 25, the day of the international pledging conference in Rangoon, Aung San Suu Kyi was due to be released from house arrest.

      "In a tremendously significant coincidence of timing, she must be released by the end of the day on May 24," said Suu Kyi's lawyer Jared Genser, who is also president of the Washington-based rights group Freedom Now.

      Suu Kyi has been under house arrest since May 2003, when junta-backed thugs went on a rampage in the central Burmese town of Depayin, killing many members of her entourage in an attack on their convoy during a tour of Upper Burma. She and other senior leaders of her party narrowly escaped with their lives.

      Five years later, she is still under house arrest, after receiving a one-year sentence that has been extended every year since 2003. According to Burmese law, the regime cannot add another year to her sentence unless it brings new charges against her.

      Of course, this didn't happen. The junta didn't even announce its plans to illegally extend her sentence. It simply didn't release her. She has been sentenced by silence.

      Suu Kyi is not just a skeleton in the junta's closet. Like Burmese everywhere, she is listening to the news about the humanitarian crisis in the delta, and sharing her compatriots' fears for those who have been stranded by an inept and indifferent regime.

      Min Ko Naing, Su Su Nway and other prominent activists behind bars are also collecting the scraps of news that reach them through the visitors who are infrequently permitted to see them, or from sympathetic prison wardens.

      Like Suu Kyi, they have probably heard Than Shwe's promise by now. And like her and everyone else who has heard it all before, they are probably quietly fighting with feelings of despair for those they are powerless to help.

      Burma's political prisoners know they aren't going anywhere soon, so they will no doubt forgive the international community for ignoring them at this time of crisis. But if the world allows the regime to sentence hundreds of thousands of Burmese to death by neglect, it will be a crime that even those who have learned to bear intense injustice will have trouble forgiving.

      Did Cyclone Nargis Kill 300,000 People? - Marwaan Macan-Markar
      Inter Press Service: Sat 24 May 2008

      Three weeks after Cyclone Nargis crashed through Burma's populous Irrawaddy Delta, the country's military regime has been more forthcoming about the number of buffaloes and chickens that perished than on human casualties.

      For now, the official human toll in Burma, or Myanmar, stands at 77,738 deaths and 55,917 missing. This figure was revealed in a small story that appeared at the bottom of page six in the May 17 edition of the "New Light of Myanmar" a mouthpiece of the regime.

      That figure was almost double of what the notoriously secretive junta had revealed nearly 10 days after the powerful cyclone struck in the early hours of May 3. Since the country's worst natural disaster in living memory, the official figures of dead and missing people have been revised at least four times.

      Some international humanitarian agencies have estimated the death toll to be over 130,000. Yet, even that number may be much lower than what a few civilian organisations working closely with the junta estimate, according to information revealed to IPS.

      By the end of the first week, information gathered by the junta and discussed among a small group of senior military officers in the former capital Rangoon had put the death toll as high as 300,000, the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said.

      "They were shocked by the scale of the disaster and that is why they clamped down on information getting out and outsiders, like foreign aid workers, going into the delta"‚ he added.

      This revelation was made a few days before another assessment of the affected areas was made by 18 humanitarian agencies in Burma. The latter estimated that at least 220,000 people are reported to be missing, in addition to 101,682 possible deaths, a local aid worker close to the agencies told IPS.

      Burmese familiar with the terrain and demographic composition in the delta are not surprised by the possibility of deaths on such a monumental scale. "Some people say that the death toll in only Bogale town and the surrounding villages could be as high as 100,000"‚ Win Min, a Burmese national security expert who grew up in the delta, told IPS. "At least 36 villages close to Bogale town were flattened."

      Bogale was one among seven townships that faced the brunt of the cyclone, which had wind speeds of 190 km per hour, churned up a wall of sea water 3.5 m high and swept 40 km inland on the flat terrain of the Irrawaddy Delta. The other badly affected townships were Labutta, Mawlamyinegyun and Kyaiklat.

      The area that was affected is vast, says Steve Marshall, a senior member of International Labour Organisation's (ILO) office in Rangoon. "We are talking of an area of 82,000 sq km, almost the size of Austria."

      What is more, the delta has the highest population density not only in Burma but is also very high when compared with the rest of Asia. There are 183 people per sq km in the delta, while in the rest of the country it is 72 people per sq km. "Over all in Asia the population density is 126 people per sq km, so the number in the delta is fairly high"‚ a U.N. population expert said in an interview.

      The junta, in fact, confirmed how populous the delta is during a briefing Thursday in Rangoon to discuss relief and reconstruction efforts. It was to some 200 people from a broad constituency of diplomats, international humanitarian groups and United Nations officials.

      There are 7.3 million people living in the cyclone-hit areas, of which four million people in the delta have been affected, the junta revealed, according to a diplomatic source present at the meeting. Another 1.5 million were affected in and around Rangoon, it added.

      This official figure of the cyclone affected - 5.5 million - is more than twice the number what the international humanitarian groups fear have been affected. All last week, humanitarian groups had said the number of the affected was estimated to be 2.5 million people.

      This latest figure of the affected people is a dramatic jump from the numbers the junta said were affected three days after the cyclone struck. The initial estimate was 975,858 people, according to information revealed to IPS.

      But while the junta chooses to be selective about the human cost of the cyclone, it has been more candid about the precise number of buffaloes and chickens that died in the delta, a terrain that supplies Burma vast quantities of food such as rice and meat.

      The junta told the foreigners assembled at the Thursday morning meeting that 136,804 buffaloes had died, of which three were "government-owned buffaloes"‚ says Penny Lawrence, international director for the British humanitarian agency Oxfam, who attended that two-hour briefing.

      Lawrence and the rest of the humanitarian community were also informed during this meeting - which was chaired by Prime Minister Gen. Thein Shien - that 1,250,194 chickens had perished in the disaster.

      "They (the junta) think they know what happened and the statistics they are sharing are very accurate"‚ Lawrence told journalists on Saturday morning. "The presentation lasted an hour and it was followed by eight questions."

      The junta is hoping that the military precision with which it rolled out the numbers of dead buffaloes and chickens –among other official statistics from the disaster – will move the international community to pour money to help rebuild the shattered delta.

      Moreover, the junta wants the 10.7 billion US dollars in foreign aid money to be channelled through official coffers, a request that poses a challenge to international donors, given the long history of the regime impoverishing its people despite the country‚s impressive earnings from its ample natural resources, like gas.

      Little wonder why Burmese living in exile, who are angered by the regime's efforts to cover up the death toll and the hurdles placed in the way of assisting victims, say that the junta smells a windfall from so much death and devastation in the delta.

      "This is the usual way of the military regime"‚ Sann Aung, a cabinet minister in Burma's democratically-elected government forced into exile, told IPS. "They never miss an opportunity to exploit the suffering of the people to profit for themselves."

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