Myanmar, where suspicion trumps aid

From a Times Staff Writer

Among the hundreds of cyclone survivors who staggered through the doors of a monastery here, staring straight ahead and too traumatized to even blink, was one village's last living man.

The abbot was quick to care for the group, feeding refugees from rice stockpiled for students who, in better times, came to learn meditation and the wisdom of the Buddha.

Within a few days, however, local officials barged into the monastery. They argued with the abbot and ordered stunned and frightened survivors to leave, said Pone Nya, an assistant to the abbot.

"They were informed that if they continued to stay in this monastery they would be put in jail," the 25-year-old monk said in an interview Wednesday.

"These local officials told us the refugees are from all walks of life, good men, bad men and rebels," Pone Nya added. "They said, 'If those people live in the town for a long time, it's dangerous for the town.' My abbot absolutely hated those words."

But he was powerless. By May 13, just 10 days after Tropical Cyclone Nargis had washed away whole villages, 1,500 survivors had been evicted from the monastery, along with thousands more from six other relief camps in this Irrawaddy River delta town.

On Thursday, the day after the monk spoke, officials brought U.N. Secretary- General Ban Ki-moon on a carefully orchestrated tour here. Myanmar's minister for border areas, Thein Nyunt, told Ban that everyone had gone home because the water had receded. A tent remained as an apparent distribution center for bags of rice and noodles and cartons of drinking water.

The effort to break up the relief camps so soon reflects the deep suspicion in which Myanmar's military rulers, who have been in power for 46 years, hold their own people, even sick and hungry victims of a natural catastrophe.

Survivors and volunteer aid workers describe similar moves in other areas. If displaced people aren't ordered to leave relief camps, officials controlling aid make sure they get so little food and other support that going back to demolished homes seems a better option, said witnesses interviewed in several delta towns and villages.

In a village near Yangon, the commercial hub, an official shutting down a relief camp in a state-owned restaurant said he was enforcing a long-standing ban on public gatherings of more than five people.

Almost three weeks after the cyclone struck, the United Nations says its supplies of food, medicine and other goods have reached only 25% of those struggling against malnutrition, disease and daily rains.

By describing the refugee evictions to a reporter in an area closed to people who might criticize the regime, Pone Nya risks being defrocked and jailed. But like many cyclone survivors, he is so angry about the ruling generals' fumbling response and their refusal to allow a full international aid effort that he is willing to face that danger.

He identified the local official in charge of clearing out the camps as Ko Khin Mg Win, who the monk said was a low-ranking employee of the state telephone company. Pone Nya said scornfully, "He's not helping anyone. He's just watching."

But rather than risk direct criticism of top military leaders, the monk quoted a song by Mar Mar Aye, a leading pro- democracy singer who lives in exile in the U.S. The song honors protesters killed and arrested last fall when the military crushed the biggest demonstrations against the regime in almost 20 years.

"There's a pain in my heart," the monk sang quietly. "We will never forget that pain until doomsday."

With those two, brief lines, he made reference to what many here are too frightened to say publicly: Anger over the military government's handling of the cyclone's aftermath could set off a new wave of protests against a regime seen as deeply corrupt and bitterly coldhearted.

"They were telling refugees to leave in the middle of the night," Pone Nya said. "They had to go back to their own villages on foot with flashlights."

His anger rising, the young monk took his biggest risk by declaring: "This military government is cruel."

Businesspeople and other wealthy residents of this town about 20 miles northwest of Bogale welcomed the villagers.

A group of 400, the first to arrive two days after the storm on May 2-3, were the only people left from a village that doesn't exist anymore. Private donors immediately gave money, food and other aid to care for them, Pone Nya said.

Local officials were almost as quick to put pressure on the abbot to kick them out, but he argued with them for days.

"The abbot told them he didn't care if they reported him to higher-ups," his assistant recalled. "He said, 'Let's see which is stronger, your report or my power.' "

During another angry encounter, the abbot wagged his finger in the face of three officials, and used a traditional phrase predicting they would be killed in a way reserved for the most evil: "You're going to die in a lightning storm," he shouted, Pone Nya said.

He later apologized, and pleaded for permission to keep the camp open, the assistant said.

"He said, 'I have enough food. If you don't want to spend money, I'll take care of them,' " Pone Nya recalled. But that argument failed too, leaving the refugees with two options: return and rebuild homes with what they could salvage, or move north to camps still open in the town of Wakema.

Several said they didn't want to move far from the land they farm because they feared being ordered to give up homes that they hope to rebuild.

U Tin Sein, a rice farmer who lives more than 50 miles west of here in Daung Kaung, a village near the town of Labutta, said that last year the regime evicted farmers in the western state of Rakhine to consolidate small paddies into larger farms for sale to Chinese investors.

As U Tin Sein spoke, 32 men were searching for any scraps of splintered homes that could be salvaged.

They left their wives and children in a relief camp because they were tired of getting just enough food from authorities to survive. The corpse of a child, bleached white by the sun and river water, lay next to the shore, wearing only pajama shorts decorated with cuddling cartoon figures.

There were 130 houses in the village before the storm. Not a single one is still standing.

About 300 of the 536 people who lived there are still alive. Alone on the horizon, surrounded by debris, scattered clothes and broken trees, is the shell of a Buddhist monastery.

Most of the roof is gone, so the men share the few dry spaces during the daily monsoon deluge. They plan to rebuild a single house for neighbors to share while they rebuild the village together.

As hard as that will be, the men say, it's better than living in a camp where the government provided just two cups of rice each per day, and some instant noodles. Just twice in more than two weeks there, they said, they got a supplement of tinned tuna.

As the men made their way back to their village by boat this week, they came across a larger vessel carrying U.N. aid through the delta's vast network of rivers and channels. The crew waved to them to pull alongside and gave them 500 pounds of rice, enough to feed their village for five days.

They had no idea when, or where, they would get more food when that ran out.

Relief distribution in the area's 14 villages is controlled by a man the returning residents identified as Ko San Way, in the village of Kan Yin Koung. They asked him three times for help, and each time got nothing, the men said.

They suspect he is hoarding the aid for his own village.

"When we tried to meet with the top guy," said Ko Saw Nai Win, 31, "he just disappeared."

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