Myanmar's junta yesterday warned of legal action against people who hoard or trade aid supplies meant for the survivors of a cyclone that may have killed up to 128,000 people, the first indirect acknowledgment of problems with relief operations.
Reports have emerged that foreign aid was being sold openly in markets and that the military was pilfering and diverting aid for its own use. New York-based Human Rights Watch said on Wednesday the military had seized high-energy biscuits that came from abroad and distributed low-quality, locally produced biscuits to survivors.
State radio obliquely denied the military was misappropriating aid.
“The government has systematically accepted donations and has distributed the relief goods immediately and directly to the victims,” it said. “Effective legal action will be taken against those who hoard, sell or buy, use or misuse the international or local donations or relief goods or cash to the cyclone victims.”
The government says 38,491 people have died and 27,838 are missing in the cyclone which hit on May 2 and May 3. But the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies estimated the death toll was between 68,833 and 127,990. The UN has said more than 100,000 may have died.
The UN and the Red Cross say 1.6 million to 2.5 million people are in urgent need of food, water and shelter. Only 270,000 have been reached so far by aid groups.
Tonnes of foreign aid — including water, blankets, mosquito nets, tarpaulins, medicines and tents — have been sent to Myanmar, but delivery has been slowed by bottlenecks, poor infrastructure and bureaucratic tangles.
The junta insists on taking control of the distribution, saying it can handle the disaster on its own — a stance that appears to stem not from its abilities but its deep suspicion of most foreigners, who have frequently criticized its human rights abuses.
It has allowed the UN and some other agencies to hand out the aid directly but barred the few foreign staff allowed into Myanmar from leaving Yangon, the country’s main city.
In a clear sign that politics is playing a role, the junta granted approval to 160 relief workers from India, China, Bangladesh and Thailand, which have rarely criticized Myanmar’s democracy record.
Monks in the disaster zone said yesterday that the junta has moved tens of thousands of homeless cyclone survivors into government-run shelters, pushing them out of monasteries and schools.
They said that people in the hardest-hit parts of the Irrawaddy Delta were relocated by boats and trucks to camps, where it was unclear if they had enough food and water after the storm that left 66,000 dead or missing.
Around the main city of Yangon, people seeking shelter at Buddhist monasteries said they had been ordered to leave but given no other accommodation.
Last October, security forces fired on and beat the protesters, leaving at least 31 dead and prompting most of Yangon’s monks to flee the country’s main city.
Many monasteries in Yangon have since been empty, but in the wake of Cyclone Nargis, monks have taken the lead in providing shelter for people left homeless by the storm.
About 80,000 people had sought sanctuary in schools and temples in the Irrawaddy Delta town of Labutta, they said.
Now, only about 20,000 remain in their care at 50 monasteries in Labutta, after the military moved them to camps set up in the towns of Myaungmya and Pathein, which escaped the storm with little damage, the monks said.