Burma cyclone special report: 'I can hear the cries of their spirits'

After the disaster that caused more than 100,000 deaths, the generals care more about holding on to power than easing the population's suffering. Andrew Buncombe reports from Bago
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The Independent Online

At a jetty on the Payapon River, a storekeeper said, with a haunted look: "So many people drowned here that at night I can hear the cries of their spirits." But Burma is an entire nation crying for help.

It is now more than a week since Cyclone Nargis struck the Irrawaddy Delta, with 130mph winds driving a wall of water across one of the most fertile rice-producing areas in the world. Along either side of the lone, narrow road that heads south towards the towns of Bogale and Payapon, trees have been uprooted, power lines torn down and entire villages of bamboo and thatch houses smashed into shreds. Everywhere there are bodies still unburied, washing to and fro with the tide.

In the town of Kyaiklat, it seemed not a house was left undamaged. "The water was up to here," said San San Oo, who put her hand on her waist to show the depth of the flood. But at this and every other battered community the story was the same: there was no food, water or electricity, and no one had come to help.

And yesterday, despite more than 100,000 deaths from the cyclone, despite the warnings of aid agencies that disease has already broken out among the survivors, the brutal, deluded generals who run the country insisted on holding a meaningless referendum on a constitution that will entrench their power. Since the junta was still impounding relief shipments and denying visas to aid workers, it was hardly going to listen to pleas that it should postpone its plebiscite, which went ahead everywhere except in the largest city, Rangoon, and the delta itself.

"The regime simply do not care about their own population," said Mark Farmaner of the Burma Campaign UK. "They would rather people died than let foreigners in. Even if they did want to help, they have no idea what to do. Their soldiers are trained to shoot civilians, not help them. These aid restrictions are not new. They have been in place for decades, despite 90 per cent of the population living in poverty."

Isolated in their up-country capital, Naypyidaw, the generals – or the State Peace and Development Council, as the junta styles itself – appeared deaf to the increasingly anxious pleas of international aid agencies for the doors to be thrown open to experts and supplies. Instead, television viewers saw repeated footage of top generals – including the junta's leader, Senior General Than Shwe – handing out boxes of aid to survivors at elaborate ceremonies.

One box bore the name of Lieutenant General Myint Swe, a rising star in the government hierarchy, in bold letters that overshadowed a smaller label reading: "Aid from the Kingdom of Thailand".

A trickle of aid has been allowed in, with three Red Cross planes arriving in Burma. The UN World Food Programme (WFP) said yesterday that it was sending two more planeloads of supplies, even though the first two were impounded by the authorities, and the first UN road convoy crossed from Thailand. Permission has also been given for one US flight, which is expected to arrive tomorrow carrying sanitation equipment.

But one aid worker told the Associated Press: "The government wants total control of the situation, although they can't provide much and they have no experience in relief efforts. We have to report to them every step of the way, every decision we make. Their eyes are everywhere, monitoring what we do, who we talk to, what we bring in and how much."

In the early hours of yesterday morning, I watched as a convoy of two dozen green military trucks made its way west from Rangoon on the rutted narrow road that leads towards the Irrawaddy delta. "It is good that the supplies are finally being delivered, but they should have been sent three or four days before," said a Burmese man who was watching. "It is not good enough. The generals run this country just to make money for themselves. They do not care about the people."

In the relief camps where the Irrawaddy flows into the Andaman Sea, no foreigners at all – not even aid workers – are allowed. But, according to relief agencies whose local staff have been permitted access, the situation is desperate. "Partners are telling [us] that there are outbreaks of disease already," said Ray Hasan of Christian Aid. "There is no time to lose."

Supplies of water, food and sanitation equipment were hopelessly inadequate, others added. "This is the second disaster," said Greg Beck of the International Rescue Committee. "First was the cyclone and the surge of water, the second will come if there is no access to food, water and shelter. They will start dying." The WFP said it had never seen such delays in dealing with a modern humanitarian crisis, and described the official response as "unprecedented".

Oxfam warned yesterday that 1.5 million people could die needlessly unless the military junta allowed immediate access to those stranded without food, clean water or medicines.

Oxfam's regional director for East Asia, Sarah Ireland, said: "In the Boxing Day tsunami, 250,000 people lost their lives in the first few hours, but we did not see an outbreak of disease because the host governments and the world mobilised a massive aid effort to prevent it happening. We have to do the same for the people of [Burma]."

But one official said that the junta, interested only in maintaining control, was acting to head off any demonstration of public anger, such as the pro-democracy demonstrations led by Buddhist monks in Rangoon last September. About 200 people were killed when the protests were put down. "They are not stupid," said the official. "They have done a pretty good job of trying to solve the problems [caused by the typhoon] in Rangoon as quickly as they can."

The regime's refusal to accept help from the West is undoubtedly linked to the sanctions imposed by the US and the EU against the country. While intended to isolate the junta, the impact of such sanctions is questionable, given that so many other countries in the region – notably China and India, which are keen to secure energy deals – are happy to support the regime.

The generals last made the mistake of allowing the population a free vote in 1990. The National League for Democracy (NLD) won by a landslide, so the junta ignored the result and put the NLD's leader, Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest, where she has remained most of the time since. (Reports have indicated that she lost the roof of her house in the typhoon.)

For the last 14 years, the regime has worked on a new draft constitution, ignoring protests from the NLD and exiled activists that it was simply designed to cement their hold on power for another two decades. Yesterday was supposed to be the start of the "transition to democracy", and state television told Burmese citizens that it was their national duty to go out and vote. "Let's go voting" and "Come along for voting", five actresses sang to a jaunty tune.

Yet on a hot, humid day on which the golden stupas of Bago's pagodas glimmered and gleamed, there appeared little enthusiasm for voting – either for or against the regime. A polling centre in Bago appeared all but deserted, while in the nearby town of Hlegu one voter said: "I voted 'yes'. It was what I was asked to do."