Junta Hushes Up Extent of Tragedy Welcome to the Burmese Police State

With more than 180,000 dead and 2.5 million affected, the suffering in Burma is growing by the day because the ruling junta continues to block foreign aid. The Burmese military would like to cut off the country from the rest of the world again as soon as possible.

By our reporter in Rangoon


The man in the brown uniform is friendly, yet very assertive. "The road leads to a restricted zone. We can't let you enter at the moment," he says, while he meticulously makes a note of our passport details and our hotels in a thick book.

Then the policeman, who is manning a checkpoint in south Rangoon, pulls out a digital camera and asks if he can take our picture. "No problem," he keeps saying with a smile on his face. "We are only doing this for your protection, surely you understand that."

It is Wednesday morning local time. After long negotiations, a driver has agreed to take us in the direction of Bogalay -- one of the areas worst hit by Cyclone Nargis, where up to 10,000 people have died. He and another Burmese companion are risking a lot by helping foreign reporters -- something that now becomes very clear to us. The police are far more interested in the identity cards of the men than they are in our passports.

We will not arrive in Bogalay today -- nor is it likely we will get there in the coming days. We try three different routes to the south -- by car, with a small boat and lastly by motorbike over muddy dirt tracks that are lined with torn bamboo huts and fallen trees. All attempts end at police checkpoints. Each time our personal information is taken down, and in the end we are quite rudely asked to drive back to Rangoon.

The junta does not like the fact that journalists are in the country: They want to keep Burma sealed off to outsiders.

Official Death Count Hides Extent of Disaster

Instead of finally providing help for the victims of the cyclone, the junta is continuing to seal off the disaster zone. A journey to the Irrawaddy Delta becomes an absurd cat-and-mouse game with the authorities, while people wait in vain for help at road sides.

What emerges is a country in which the suffering increases with each passing day: According to International Red Cross and Red Crescent estimates, the storm may have killed up to 128,000 people. The United Nations estimates that 1.6 million to 2.5 million people are suffering acutely as a result of the cyclone. The junta, however, talks about 34,000 dead and 27,000 missing.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has called for an urgent meeting to improve the aid situation for Burma's cyclone victims. He says "all options" should be discussed in order to get humanitarian relief aid to Burma faster and more efficiently.

The world cannot really measure how well or badly the support for the victims is really going. Although there are many journalists in Rangoon's hotels these days, who pretend to be tourists and go on conspiratorial trips into the disaster areas with Burmese tour guides, the junta is fully focused on ensuring that no reporter gets to see the misery in the disaster zones.

"Every entry into the country is being carefully registered," a Western diplomat said. "It's all about ensuring that the very worst pictures are kept out of the news."

Harrassing Reporters Instead of Helping People

Welcome to the Burmese police state. Because of the incidents at the checkpoints, there are now at least three snapshots of us in the files of the secret police -- and that's not even counting the photos secretly taken at the airport. As absurd as it may seem, instead of providing aid to its people, the Burmese junta has succeeded masterfully in recent days in resurrecting a police state apparatus with thousands, perhaps even tens of thousands, of spies and a system that leaves people in fear of being persecuted.

As we head south, police, soldiers and intelligence officials who are mostly wearing sweatsuits as they conduct checks, meticulously radio our information back to headquarters. The hectic pace with which the authorities are acting is made even more absurd by the fact that long before the checkpoints, you can already see how badly people are suffering -- and compared to us, they are hardly getting any attention from the state.

At the edge of Rangoon, not even 40 kilometers from the airport, where several planes carrying relief supplies are finally starting to land, there are no real excuses for the failure of aid to arrive. There are no distribution difficulties, it's not far from the airport to the delta, and the roads are fine. By truck, it would only take an hour to get a delivery to Nyaung Gon, one of Rangoon's poorest neighborhoods.

Mayana Swe can see the planes arriving from abroad with her own eyes. The 36-year-old is sitting in front of a metal suitcase. Despite the rust, you can still see a red cross on it. Inside, there are bandages and syringes with labels that have yellowed with age. There are about 40 children fussing about around her. Some are crying, and she rocks one baby with diarrhea back to sleep again and again. The others are playing on the ground, which has been polluted with brackish water. The school has now become a Red Cross center, says Swe.

'We Can't Hold Out for Much Longer'

But she hasn't seen much of the aid that's been arriving yet. The parents deposit their children here in the morning as they go into the city to look for food, Swe explains. In the last few days, she has received from the state, but more often from the village elder, a few sacks of rice now and again. But the rice is sometimes moldy and is only ever enough for a day or two anyway. "We can't hold out for much longer," she says, "especially the children."

Swe takes careful pains not to name those responsible for the suffering. It's a typical Burmese conversation in which fear of the police apparatus is constantly present.

Swe is looking for explanations, talking about problems the country and government has to contend with. Maybe other regions need help more urgently, she concludes, astonishingly. But perhaps the government doesn't even really care about the suffering of Swe and the children.

Observations in Rangoon confirm this suspicion. The military is trying hard to show it is doing something. Soldiers can be seen with heavy equipment, clearing away the countless uprooted trees. The government wants Rangoon to look as it did before and distract from the misery that has befallen the south of the country -- at least that seems to be its strategy. If at the same time there are no reports of the misery in the disaster zones, the world might quickly turn its attention away from Burma.

Keeping its People in the Dark

Rangoon once again has sporadic electricity, even though at night the city still looks like a ghost town where lights are few and far between. The mobile phone network, to which only the elite have access, is working again. But you have to pay thousands of dollars for a SIM card that doesn't even allow you to phone abroad. In an autocracy, communication is a threat -- and that's something this junta recognized early on. That is why the Internet is also strictly controlled.

Even so, the junta still cannot prevent many small impressions of the situation in Burma from being collected. A German photographer, for example, saw what has happened to some of the Western relief supplies: Several boxes bearing the names of international relief organizations suddenly appeared in his hotel. Instead of being handed out to the needy, they were hauled to the hotel's goods entrance. Other aid workers have reported organized theft in the warehouses of relief organizations.

Mayana Swe knows nothing about this. In the coming days she will wait for further help und try to get hold of the essentials. UN experts predict that her village is among those settlements threatened by outbreaks of cholera and typhus.

But the junta will try to hush this up, too. And perhaps tomorrow foreigners will be forbidden from taking the ferry to the poverty-stricken district of Nyaung Gon.

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