Burma: the misery, the fear and the secrecy

Pragmatism has been placed above principle as the regime continues to turn its back on the West - even when it comes to accepting emergency aid. Andrew Buncombe reports from a delta where fear lingers alongside the misery
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The Independent Online

Once the order had come there was little option but to do what we had been told. “I am a police captain. I know what you are,” the Burmese policeman had said, gripping my hand firmly and staring me in the eyes. “You should leave this town now. It is better for your own safety.”

The police officer may or may not have been worried about my well-being but he certainly did not want foreigners poking around his delta town that had overnight become home to more than 10,000 desperate refugees from cyclone Nargis. “You should be visiting the pagodas and temples,” he said.

The two Burmese taxi drivers who had brought me to the town, a good six-hour drive along rutted roads from Rangoon, were adamant that we leave immediately. There was no suggestion of lingering, no suggestion of pressing on another town further south, no question of stopping off for more interviews on the way. Back in the car one of two men was close to wholesale panic and was frantically discussing the situation in Burmese with his colleague. He said to me, very clearly: “It is fine for you. But I have my family here, they will come and make trouble for me.”

The country of Burma operates in a scandalous state of fear. After almost half a century of military rule, the people of this impoverished nation are terrified of each other, terrified that someone may be a spy, petrified that someone will report them to the police for an alleged wrongdoing. It may or may not be true that the regime has eyes and ears everywhere but it does not matter; people believe it to be the case so they act as if it is.

The most telling insight into how deep this fear penetrates had come the day before in the town of Bago, about two hours north of Rangoon. It was one of the cities where voting for the new constitution was going ahead, the ballot for the sham election having been postponed in those areas affected by the storm.

For perhaps an hour I searched in vain for the voting centre, unsure where it was. I asked the taxi-driver to ask someone but he was reluctant. Why, I asked? He said that because he did not know anyone in the city he did not wish to risk asking a stranger a “political” question such as the location of the voting hall while in the company of a foreigner. This young man, who the day before had accompanied me on a trip along one of the delta’s rivers littered with the stinking corpses of the cyclone’s victims, did not have the stomach for stopping off at a voting centre.

The result of this fear and paranoia is that neither the outside world nor the Burmese people know barely anything about what is taking place in this secretive, enigmatic country. Even now, two weeks after the 120mph storm struck the southern edge of the Irrawaddy Delta, the full scale of the disaster is unclear. Perhaps 100,000 people are dead, perhaps it is 150,000. All that is known is that a Myanmar state television report today said the official death toll has jumped sharply, to 77,738 from a previous figure of 43,328. The number missing was said to be 55,917 - double the previous figure.

Remarkably, the government will not tell even those aid groups it permits into the country which areas of the stricken region it has reached. It may be there are large parts and numerous off-shore islands that have yet to be reached by any sort of emergency aid. The United Nations said today that severe restrictions by the junta mean the UN lacks the most basic information, from the number of orphans to the extent of diseases and the number of refugee camps.

“There are a lot of very strange things about this country,” a senior official with an international charity who lives in Rangoon, told me one afternoon this week. Frustrated and angry by what his considered the criminally slow and pathetic response of the government, he and his colleagues are forced to keep their silence or risk having what little cooperation they receive come to an end. In private the relief experts seethe as they watch the likelihood of a second disaster - entirely manmade and unnecessary - afflict the survivors of Nargis.

The news that has got out over the past couple of weeks has been gathered with no small difficulty. The distances from Rangoon to the delta region may be short in miles but is long in hours along bone-aching roads. There are no communication facilities in the delta region, no electricity. Now there are police check-points on all the roads leading out of Rangoon and the police have orders to turn back all foreigners. A group of French journalists arrived in the city early this week only to find themselves effectively confined to the capital.

But the news that can be pieced together is deeply disturbing. One Western diplomat told me how she had watched as a temple that had been operating as a makeshift shelter for the homeless had been told by the government to get rid of everyone and tell them to move to the government’s official camps. “It was 20 minutes before sunset and I asked the priest what was going to happen to the people who were forced out. He told that they would try and help those people,” said the diplomat. “When I asked him what that meant, he said they would try and give the people some rice. But where are all these people going to go?”

It was just one of many such tales. A journalist colleague told me of a Baptist church in the city of Pathein, 60 miles or so west of Rangooon, which was filled with the cyclone’s orphans - children who had lost their parents when the storm struck and sent a 12ft tidal wave surging through the slightly-built communities along the delta’s edge. An estimated 40 per cent of Burma’s population are children. Simple maths tells you that tens of thousands of them were killed by the storm.

In fact, the numbers may be higher. In a village on the edge of the Payapon River, a branch of the Irrawaddy, a group of villagers told me how they had tried to hold on to tree trunks and the beams of a house when the wave came. They gripped as tightly as they could but the elderly and the very young were the most vulnerable, they said. “There were too many children for us to help,” said one of the men. He said that they had received no help from the government and now they were desperate for food and water, their well having been polluted with salt water. “No one has been here,” he said.

Such arrogance and indifference does not exist in a vacuum. The Burmese regime continues to exist because it receives financial and political backing from its powerful neighbours China and India. Both countries, desperate to cement deals to secure Burma’s gas and oil reserves, have placed pragmatism above principle - much as the US and the West have done in relation to countries such as Saudi Arabia. The US can afford to impose wholesale sanctions against Burma because it has nothing to lose. Equally, while Burma is making friends with China and India and Thailand it can continue to turn its back on the West - even when it comes to accepting emergency aid.

The people who suffer, of course, are the most needy and desperate. An estimated 90 per cent of Burma’s population lives in poverty. People cannot understand why the generals in charge of the country run it like a private, feudal system from which only they are their cronies benefit. They cannot understand why the regime does so little to help the people.

On the way out of Burma I passed through Bangkok’s shining international airport. In one of the many bookstores, I picked up a copy The Lost Executioner, Nic Dunlop’s remarkable investigation into Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge and his discovery of Comrade Duch, the head of the notorious Tuol Sleng torture camp.

The Burmese generals are not the Khmer Rouge but there are similarities between the two societies. I was struck by Dunlop’s revelation of a paranoid, terrified world where everyone was scared of their neighbours, scared they would inform on them for some misdeed. I was struck by the discrepancy between the image the regime sought to give to the outside world and the reality on the ground. I was struck by how the cadres of the Khmer Rouge saw the people of Cambodia as utterly expendable.

Most of all, I found it incredible that regime whose genesis began with the idea of creating a more equal society could act with such casual brutality to its people.