In Burma, a frustrated quiet
Without aid coming along Burma's Asian Highway, Burmese head east to find help.
The Asian Highway should be jammed with a convoy of trucks carrying aid supplies from the Thai border west to the devastated Burmese commercial capital of Rangoon, 250 miles away. Instead, boys on inner tubes paddle across the Moei River, delivering Thai goods to Burmese waiting on the other side.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
The government of Burma (Myanmar), criticized for blocking foreign aid, is also preventing Burmese doctors, nurses, soldiers, and citizens from helping their compatriots, in sharp contrast to the massive volunteer spirit that swept across Indonesia, Thailand, and Sri Lanka immediately after the 2004 tsunami.
On the Asian Highway, most traffic is coming east from Rangoon as the ripple effect of the high winds and sea, which killed people in the southern delta, spreads across the country.
Burmese truck drivers say 500 to 600 people are fleeing every day from Rangoon, where they lack food and water, to the Karen state capital of Hpa-an, some eight hours away. Residents here in Myawaddy say they expect greater flows of people in coming weeks and months.
But even in eastern Burma, this new wave of refugees is finding food shortages and skyrocketing prices, as sellers profiteer from panic. The Thai government has long wanted to expand and pave the Asian Highway all the way across to the Indian border, as they have upgraded roads from Thailand deep into Cambodia and Laos. Instead, drivers say, the Asian Highway is a narrow sliver of dirt or chipped pavement that only allows one-way flow of traffic to go down the mountain one day, and up the next. Armed soldiers at checkpoints every couple of miles outside Myawaddy turn back foreigners and arrest or fine Burmese without travel permits.
"I could get 20 years in jail for taking people illegally," says a driver, who recently bought a Toyota from Thailand. He charges passengers at least 5,000 kyat, or about $6, for a one-way trip. "The soldiers are very strict on this highway," he says. "Burmese people are not allowed to move freely like in other countries."
Even Burmese soldiers, who were unusually friendly to this foreign reporter, say they are frustrated about being unable to help in the south. "We have to stay here and follow orders," says a young soldier, his teeth red from chewing betel nut. "We have to do our duties here."
Aid trickles in
The first UN aid convoy sent by land arrived Monday in Rangoon with supplies, including plastic sheets and tents, for some 10,000 people. It took two days for the trucks to reach Rangoon from the Thai border town of Mae Sot.
The United States also delivered 28,000 pounds of mosquito nets, blankets, and water on a C-130 cargo plane Monday. After returning to Thailand, Adm. Timothy Keating, head of the US Pacific Command, said that more support was ready, but stressed that the US would not act without Burmese permission to address a crisis in which as many as 100,000 may have died.
Henrietta Fore, of USAID, said that US officials, led by Admiral Keating, met with senior Burmese authorities at the airport. "[We] exchanged ideas on how we might assist," she said. "They showed us maps of where they had the greatest need."