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BURMA FORCING CYCLONE VICTIMS OUT OF REFUGEE CAMPS

by Marwaan Macan-Markar

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Burma Refusing Aid Because it Fears U.S.-Backed Coup

(IPS) BANGKOK -- A global human rights lobby slammed Burma's military regime for driving survivors who have endured untold hardship since last month's powerful cyclone into further misery.

The junta in Burma, or Myanmar, has forced cyclone victims out of temporary shelters, confiscated aid, and come in the way of assistance to the victims from local community groups and Burmese citizens, revealed Amnesty International (AI) in a report released this week in the Thai capital.

"We are talking of thousands of people who have been forcibly displaced," Benjamin Zawacki, AI's Burma researcher, told IPS. "They [the junta] have been targeting monasteries and schools. Most of the people forcibly displaced came from monasteries and schools."

The orders to evict the victims from the cyclone shelters have come from the military regime and the Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA), a civilian body created by the military to enforce its policies, even by force. "Both have been giving out orders; in some cases with 48 hours notice, some, 24 hours, some were asked to move immediately," Zawacki added.

The over all trend is that the people have been pushed "further and further south, into the delta," Zawacki said during a press conference to launch the report. "But there is no distinct pattern."


Cyclone Nargis struck Burma's populous Irrawaddy Delta in the early hours of May 3, killing between 130,000 to possibly 300,000 people, and affecting between 2.5 million to 5.5 million people. The country's worst natural disaster hit an 82,000 square km area that has the highest population density in the Southeast Asian nation.

On May 11, "cyclone survivors staying in four monasteries in Bogale, Irrawaddy Division, were made to leave by the authorities and the USDA. Many of them were forced into military trucks to Maubin, while others were simply told to go back to their villages on their own," AI's report reveals.

On May 19, in Labutta -- also one of the worst hit townships like Bogale – "local authorities forced large numbers of people aboard boats in an effort to return them to their villages in Myaungmya and Maubin townships and elsewhere," according to AI. "Beginning on or just after 19 May, authorities forcibly relocated people out of Myaungmya, Maubin, Pyapon, and Labutta, where they had been originally relocated, further south back to their original villages."

"Amnesty International has been able to confirm over 30 instances and accounts of forcible displacement by the [military regime] in the aftermath of the cyclone, but anecdotal evidence from numerous sources strongly suggests a much higher number," the report adds.

A similar heavy-handed approach by the junta has been on display in the distribution of aid. "Until May 26, the [military regime] blocked all international assistance to the delta," the report notes. "Amnesty International has confirmed over 40 reports or accounts of soldiers or local government officials confiscating, diverting or otherwise misusing aid intended for cyclone victims."

AI's revelations have raised questions about the effectiveness of UN agencies working in a country that has been under an oppressive military grip since a 1962 coup. After all, the forced displacement of cyclone victims by the junta violates the UN guiding principles on internal displacement.

But the world body has not ignored the concerns about forced displacement of survivors in the cyclone-affected areas, says Richard Horsey, spokesman for the UN Office of the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). "The UN, including OCHA, has said that any forced removal of people is a clear violation of international law and is unacceptable."

"We are aware of reports of forced movement of people to camps and away from camps. We are also aware of camp closures," Horsey told IPS. "But these movements of people need to be verified. The important question is where they are being moved to."

And given the occasion to do so, the UN has raised its concerns with senior officials in the regime. "There have been discussions with the authorities about the forced movement of people," Horsey added. "It was also discussed twice on May 31 and Jun. 2 during meetings [involving representatives from the regime, the UN and a 10-member regional bloc -- the Association of Southeast Asian Nations].'

AI's revelations confirm the new wave of troubles that have struck the area since the cyclone -- much of it triggered by the junta's disregard for the victims or its reluctance to ease its totalitarian grip on the country. This week, the UN revealed that only half of the victims have received aid a month after the disaster.

And efforts by UN agencies and international humanitarian groups to get experts familiar with post-disaster needs into the delta have also been met with resistance from the regime. Only 20 UN and other foreign aid workers have been given permission to enter the delta since UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon got a commitment from the junta during meetings in late May for greater access.

In fact, one international agency that appears to have overcome some of the hurdles, Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF, Doctors Without Borders), confirmed that the worst was far from over for the cyclone survivors in the delta.

"Till now, the support is inadequate… The emergency phase is not over," says Michel Permans, of MSF International. "There are a lot of small [cyclone-hit] villages that are almost forgotten."



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Albion Monitor   June 6, 2008   (http://www.albionmonitor.com)

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