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Myanmar pushing survivors out of monasteries, say monks

AFP, May 15, 2008

YANGON, Myanmar -- Myanmar is forcing homeless cyclone survivors out of the nation's monasteries, monks from the disaster zone said Thursday, as the junta rebuffed international pressure to allow in foreign aid workers.

<< Desperate people. Burma's people plea for help.

The reports from the monasteries, which were at the centre of anti-regime protests last year, came as the regime announced overwhelming public support in its recent national vote.

Cyclone Nargis left 66,000 dead or missing, while two million have been made destitute and in desperate need of aid.

But official media, controlled by the military which has ruled the country for nearly half a century, said Myanmar's people were coping with the tragedy alone -- and had turned out en masse to support the junta in last weekend's referendum.

It said 99 percent of eligible voters had cast their ballots in Saturday's much-criticised referendum, and that 92.4 percent had approved a new constitution that dissidents said was intended to legitimise military rule.

"We announce the results of the referendum, with 92.4 percent casting Yes ballots," said a statement from Aung Toe, head of the committee that organised the vote, read on state television.

The May 10 ballot was held everywhere except the areas hardest hit by Cyclone Nargis, the worst natural disaster in the history of the country formerly known as Burma.

Voting booths were set up close to makeshift camps full of homeless survivors short of food and water, as the government ignored calls to postpone the ballot with the impoverished nation in the midst of a catastrophe.

The generals, long suspicious of the outside world, have also rejected pressure to allow in foreign specialists to direct the relief effort, insisting despite all the evidence that Myanmar can handle the tragedy alone.

The New Light of Myanmar newspaper, a state-run mouthpiece, said in an editorial Thursday that the nation's people welcomed the foreign aid coming in since the storm hit May 2 and 3.

"However, they will not rely too much on international assistance and will reconstruct the nation on (a) self-reliance basis," it said.

The international community has been pressing the government to allow in enough foreign specialists in disaster relief to oversee the complicated aid effort.

US-based Human Rights Watch said it heard reports some aid was being diverted, and that outside monitors were needed to ensure donations went to the victims.

"The delivery of relief supplies can't be left entirely in the hands of Burma's abusive military, or aid simply won't reach those most in need," said Brad Adams, the group's Asia director for Human Rights Watch (HRW).

But the military, perhaps wary of any outside influence that could weaken its total control of almost every aspect of life in this impoverished nation, has held up visas for most relief workers and said it can manage alone.

Just months after the country's revered Buddhist monks led the biggest protests against the regime in two decades, there were new reports that survivors who had sheltered in monasteries were being pushed out.

Monks said people were being relocated by boats and trucks from monasteries and schools, pushed into state-run camps where it was unclear if there was sufficient food or water to help them.

About 80,000 people had sought shelter in schools and temples in the Irrawaddy Delta town of Labutta, which was left in ruins by the cyclone, they said.

"The authorities do not have enough supplies. Monks still have to take care of these victims," said a 30-year-old monk from Labutta, who had travelled to the main city of Yangon in search of donations.

"They want to rely on Buddhist monks," he said.

After small initial demonstrations last year following a government price hike in fuel, monks led a weeks-along display of defiance against the regime in the biggest public protests in Myanmar since 1988.

But the regime eventually cracked down on the demonstrations. The United Nations said 31 people were killed and that dozens were unaccounted for.

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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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