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Burma junta rejects outside recovery efforts

Sunday, May 18, 2008 | 10:00 a.m. CDT; updated 8:31 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Loory: Sometimes it is impossible to understand the cruelty of nature. We marvel at its beauty, but we grow incredulous when natural disaster strikes. Can any of us remember when two such cataclysmic events as the Myanmar cyclone and the Chinese earthquake hit within a week of each other? In China, estimates say 34,000 people, including school children, died in just a few seconds of deep earth rumble. In Myanmar, a country better known as Burma, about 24,000 died as the high winds and rains of a category 7.6 cyclone roared across the Irrawaddy River Delta, perhaps the richest rice-growing area in the world. The death toll could grow to more than 100,000. In China, the government reacted quickly and openly to bring the crisis under control. In Myanmar, the military junta that controls the country acted as if nothing serious had happened. It created difficulties for international donors to send aid. It conducted a referendum allowing the junta to remain in uncontested power for years to come, while the floodwaters were still receding. It would not allow journalists into Myanmar to cover the story. What can be done to bring the disasters under control? Is the recovery beginning to come along in Myanmar, or is it still chaotic?

Andrew Buncombe, Asia correspondent, The Independent (of London) newspaper, Delhi, India: Aid is starting to get through, but it’s a trickle. The international relief effort is being blocked by the military authorities who are suspicious of foreigners and of the West, and don’t want their help. People are suffering and their lives are at risk as a result. In vast areas of the delta, people have no aid. The government of a Third-World impoverished country that never cared about its people is taking the lead in a humanitarian effort, and the results are awful.

Loory: (Buncombe went to Burma as a tourist to cover the story) Could you travel to the Irrawaddy Delta and see firsthand what was going on?

Buncombe: I saw plenty of death and destruction. I got to towns of 50,000 homes in which there was barely a house standing, and to rivers littered with the corpses of people who had been washed out to sea by the tidal surge and then flooded back upstream. After several days, authorities started shutting the roads and blocking access for foreigners. The danger is for the local people journalists are traveling with or using as translators. The police do not take kindly to them mixing with foreigners. It is a great risk.

Loory: Did you have a proper working visa, or were you there surreptitiously?

Buncombe: The Burmese regime claims it gives out journalist visas among other visas, but I have known only one person ever who has been given a journalist’s visa. However, the regime encourages business people and tourists to visit, so they give out those visas. It makes doing one’s job difficult because journalists have to ask questions in secret. They can’t talk to officials or present themselves. My suspicion is the regime knows a lot of the foreigners who are there are journalists. It seems unlikely Burma would have an influx of tourists asking to hire boats and to be shown bodies, but officially no.

Loory: How does Mizzima News in Thailand, which is opposed to the ruling junta, get news from across the border?

Sein Win, managing editor, Mizzima News, Chiang Mai, Thailand: The regime has blocked the information that gets out by cutting the telephones and blocking the Internet, but we manage in other ways. We use a satellite phone, which is illegal in Burma. We send journalists to cover the country, not with a journalist’s visa but with a tourist visa.

Achara Ashayagachat, senior reporter, Bangkok Post, Bangkok, Thailand: Thailand may be the only link between the Burmese junta and the world because the line of communication between the two countries is still open. Thailand is the first country that has delivered a token to Burma; a number of delegations have visited the country. In the past, the international community has urged Thailand to pressure Burma on democracy and international communication, but Thailand has delivered some results. Otherwise, the junta would not receive a U.S. Naval commander in town just after the cyclone hit.

Loory: Is the U.S. one of the countries giving Thailand a bum rap?

Nancy Youssef, Pentagon correspondent, McClatchy Newspapers, Washington, D.C.: The U.S. wants to help the people of Myanmar, but it doesn’t want to aggravate an isolationist government. At first, Myanmar said it would accept no aid. Now the U.S. is sending in multiple planes, with each one carrying about 30,000 pounds of water, mosquito nets, blankets, etc. The U.S. military considers itself the world’s largest humanitarian organization. Its emphasis is on finding a way to get supplies to the people who desperately need it.

Loory: Reports say the Chinese government has asked for aid, especially for shovels, picks and bandages. Is there a shortage of rescue tools?

Wen Huang, editor and marketing analyst, Xinhua News Agency, Beijing, China: There isn’t a tool shortage, but anything that would help is welcome. The government and the army have reacted quickly. China’s premier went to the earthquake area on the same day to direct the rescue. Soldiers, military policemen and local people are trying hard to access the damaged areas and conduct rescues.

Loory: Isn’t the amount of media coverage this story has gotten in China unusual? Why has there been a change in attitude?

Huang: Nothing has changed overnight. It is a procedure for the country to become more confident and to open up. The country is trying to save people from the disaster, and we see it as a reaction of the whole country, the government and the people.

Loory: Isn’t Doctors without Borders the only international organization that has able to do anything of great importance in Myanmar?

Buncombe: The World Food Program also has a huge presence and Save the Children has been there for more than a decade. The other side is these disasters act as a huge fundraiser for organizations. They’re desperate to get their names into the media and to raise their profiles. The fact that ones that haven’t been there in the last decade are sending someone to sit in Rangoon and give sound bites is a bit strange. Obviously, NGOs and aid organizations do a fantastic job, but there is this other side, which unfortunately is also an opportunity to these organizations.

Loory: What is the opposition in Myanmar doing to bring the disaster under control?

Ashayagachat: The opposition is denouncing the referendum and is calling for the international community to expedite aid. Burma is different from China. China is hosting the Olympic Games and has to prove it is capable of helping its own people. Burma doesn’t care what the world says and is kind of paranoid. Everyone is frustrated when U.N. workers cannot get to sites freely to address problems. But blaming and pressuring the regime isn’t working. One has to use quieter diplomacy through the country that can still talk to Burma. (Editor’s Note: For an extension of Ms. Ashayagachat’s remarks, go to globaljournalist.org and click on the forum.)

Loory: It is a truism that nature knows no bounds in either beauty or disaster, and that is something that we all have to live with.


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