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Aid hijacked

By BangkokPost.com, Deutsche Presse-Agentur dpa, May 12, 2008

Bangkok, Thailand -- Privy Councillor Surayud Chulanont is to fly to Burma on Sunday, the ninth day of the cyclone disaster, to try to convince the Burmese dictatorship that the world wants to help devastated people. On Saturday, the junta reached a new level of cynicism, pasting huge labels on aid packages from Thailand to claim the help was from the top generals, rather than the Thai people.

<< People take showers and brush their teeth on a street in Yangon, Myanmar Wednesday. Survivors, with harrowing tales of villages smashed by Cyclone Nargis, are paddling wooden boats to the town of Bogalay to find whole streets destroyed and food and water scarce.(Reuters)

The regime plastered names of the top generals on the aid boxes, as part of the propaganda and intimidation campaign it is running to back its referendum seeking to perpetuate the 46-year military control of the country.

The Associated Press reported that state-run television inside Burma continuously ran images of elaborate cemonies where top generals - including the junta leader, Senior Gen Than Shwe - handed out boxes of Thai aid disguised so as to appear it came from the junta, to survivors of the tragedy.

One box seen in the videos bore the name of Lt Gen Myint Swe, a rising star in the government hierarchy, in bold letters, overshadowing a smaller label which barely could be read:: "Aid from the Kingdom of Thailand."

"We have already seen regional commanders putting their names on the side of aid shipments from Asia, saying this was a gift from them and then distributing it in their region," said Mark Farmaner, director of Burma Campaign UK, which campaigns for human rights and democracy in the country.

Gen Surayud, a former prime minister, is to fly to Naypyidaw, the Burmese "jungle capital," to do the unthinkable - convince the Burmese generals to allow the world to help the victims of a killer cyclon.

As an illustration, Gen Surayud will present aid packages provided by the King. On Saturday, His Majesty instructed the Raja Prachanukroh Foundation to send 2,000 bags of utensils and bedding.

The 10 tonnes of subsistence aid was to be flown to Rangoon on Sunday on a Royal Thai Air Force C-130 cargo plane, said foundation officials.

While aid agencies hashed out terms with the Burmese military regime, the country's rulers pushed through a "sham" referendum intended to cement their political power.

Marcus Prior, a spokesman for the WFP in Bangkok, said: "Given the humanitarian crisis, we felt the need to continue the supplies." The agency was allowed another three air shipments of supplies to Rangoon, scheduled to arrive Saturday and Sunday.

The UN refugee agency, UNHCR, said its first trucks had also arrived in Burma carrying 20 tons of emergency aid - enough to provide shelter for up to 10,000 people.

"This convoy marks a positive step in an aid effort so far marked by challenges and constraints," said Raymond Hall, UNHCR's Representative in Thailand. "We hope it opens up a possible corridor to allow more international aid to reach the cyclone victims."

While aid agencies hashed out terms with the military regime by which the emergency supplies may be released, Burmese rulers pushed through a "sham" referendum Saturday intended to cement their political power.

Meanwhile the military's referendum went ahead despite international appeals to postpone the vote in the wake of Cyclone Nargis that could have killed up to 100,000 people.

Although the junta postponed the vote to May 24 in 47 of the districts worst-hit, including much of the former capital Rangoon, it rejected international appeals for a general delay.

The referendum process, held under the strict control of the military masters, has been call a "sham" by human rights activists and western democracies for being neither free nor fair.

The country's 400,000-strong military was been given the double task of monitoring the referendum and taking the lead in the distribution of emergency aid.

Over the past week, state-controlled newspapers and TV have highlighted pictures of military men passing out emergency supplies to the people affected by the cyclone, including, oddly, some shots showing officers handing out VCD and DVD players to the needy.

The publicity stunt clashes with the reality. Recipients of government handouts have complained of the small quantities and poor quality.

But in Burma's media-controlled environment most people are unaware of the international furore over the junta's delaying tactics in granting visas to disaster relief experts from the UN and other aid organizations.

These have warned that diphtheria, cholera and malaria could spread in an epidemic of "apocalyptic proportions" if medical, food, water and other types of aid are not allowed in, along with trained personnel to administer the support.

In its latest announcements, the government has confirmed 23,335 deaths and some 37,019 missing. UN officials on Friday estimated the death toll will climb to 63,000 to 100,000 based on reports from 18 aid organizations working in 55 devastated townships.

While aid is trickling in to the Irrawaddy, many people have apparently survived on Buddhist charity this week.

In Labutta, for instance, the population has doubled as refugees seek shelter and food in the relatively large city.

"There is now some aid coming in but many people are relying on the charity of the Burmese families who are residents in Labutta," said Heinke Veit, a director for the European Commission Humanitarian aid Office (ECHO).

Veit and sources at UNICEF denied reports that cases of cholera had already been detected in the delta area.

"The chief of health operations for UNICEF in Rangoon said there is no evidence of cholera or typhoid yet, although it is a concern," said Shantha Bloemen, a spokesperson for UNICEF in Bangkok.

The International Federation of the Red Cross (IFRC) in Geneva said humanitarian aid had reached around 220,000 people, despite logistical difficulties.

France is to make its own aid action for the victims of cyclone Nargis, sending the warship Mistral loading with 1,500 tonnes of goods, it was reported Saturday.

"We have decided to act without waiting any further," French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner was quoted by the French daily Le Figaro.

The aid is to be directly distributed to the effected..., either by the ship's crew or by French aid organizations," Kouchner said, adding that "delivering aid directly to (the military) junta doesn't come into the question."

A move by Indonesia to block a resolution in the United Nations' Security Council over the crisis was "unbelievable and unacceptable," Sunai Phasuk, a representative of rights group Human Rights Watch, said Saturday.

Indonesia has no excuse for its cynical tactics because it received massive lifesaving international help after the tsunami disaster in December 2004, said the New York-based agency's international representative.

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Myanmar Cyclone Disaster Fast Facts

Toll as at May 9, 2008

Dead (official)
Missing (official) 41,054
Dead (US estimate) 100,000 plus
Homeless (UN estimate) 1 million- plus

International contributors

$10 million
$3 million
UNITED STATES $3 million
AUSTRALIA $2.8 million
$2 million in aid.
CANADA $2 million
INDONESIA $1 million
SPAIN $775,000
GERMANY $775,000
CHINA $500,000
FRANCE $320,000
GREECE $300,000
JAPAN $267,570
THAILAND $100,000
$2.1 million
SRI LANKA $25,000

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