Since 1949, the Burmese military has waged a war in the east against mainly Christian Karen ethnic minorities, who for centuries have also inhabited the country's Irrawaddy Delta.
Today, Karen leaders and aid workers fear that the 60-year old conflict may be part of the reason the government of Burma (Myanmar) is aiding some people and not others in the southern region devastated by the May 3 cyclone Nargis, where Karens make up an estimated half of the population.
"[Ethnicity] is one of the reasons why the government is blocking international aid from entering the delta. It's already 10 days now," says David Tharckabaw, secretary-general of the Karen National Union, a political group with a military wing based in Mae Sot, a Thai town at the Burmese border. "Many Karens are fishermen or farmers living in the worst storm-hit areas."
Human rights workers cite unconfirmed reports that friends and family have been separated by boatmen evacuating ethnic Burmans from the Delta while leaving Karens behind.
Mr. Tharckabaw says he has no way of calculating the death toll among Karens. But based on "underground communications with Karen leaders in the delta" who are also sending photos and videos to Thailand, he fears it could be 500,000, since many Karens lived on the small islands or seaside areas swept away by a 12-foot-high sea surge. International aid groups have put the total death count at 100,000 but warn it could rise drastically if aid doesn't reach survivors soon. "The junta is playing with the lives of people in order to use food aid for their own gains," says Tharckabaw.
Karens and rights groups have long accused the Burmese military of raping or using Karens as forced labor. "The Karen have long suffered from the operations and discrimination of the military regime," says Myat Thu, a student leader of the 1988 demonstrations, now living in exile in Mae Sot.
"Our concern is that we've got reports of discriminatory practices in the delta region in terms of who gets aid first," says Benjamin Zawacki, who has been researching the issue for Amnesty International from Bangkok, Thailand. "These reports are consistent with past practices of the military regime. This is really the root problem of the aid process. Without having foreign staff on the inside, it's problematic to let the military distribute aid."
Privileges for the military class
Not just the Karens, many ethnic groups face poor treatment from the government, Mr. Thu says. "Now the government is discriminating against all ethnicities, even the Burmans, who are the largest group. The military are creating themselves as a separate, special class. Everybody else is below them."
Survival might depend on connections to the military, rather than any ethnic group. The military regime is reportedly hoarding better-quality foreign aid for itself and doling out inferior or even rotten food, the Associated Press reported Tuesday, even as the United Nations declared that only a small portion of international aid needed is making it into the country.
Facing mounting criticism for hampering aid efforts, the isolated regime has agreed to accept relief shipments from the UN and foreign countries, but has largely refused entry to aid workers who might distribute the aid. Two US planes delivered aid this week, and the regime indicated a willingness to allow future shipments. But logistical bottlenecks, poor infrastructure, and the junta's restrictions have delayed the distribution of the aid, which is piling up at the airport in Rangoon.
Cyclone survivors are said to be packed into monasteries or camped in the open, drinking dirty water contaminated by dead bodies and animal carcasses. Food and medicine are scarce.
Citizen aid-workers begin to mobilize
Grass-roots relief efforts are beginning to crop up, says Htet Zaw, a former magazine editor who fled to Thailand after the military crackdown on protesters last September. He reports that Burmese students, monks, and migrant workers are beginning to organize an underground network to deliver supplies directly to victims by a method he calls "man to man, monk to monk."
"The problem is how to carry clothes and food and other things directly to the people. We don't want to give it to the junta because they will steal it or delay it," he says.
"This kind of tragedy, this scale of devastation often brings people together. Often it doesn't matter where you come from. People are dying. People band together," says Pamela Sitko, a regional spokesperson for World Vision. "But when people are not getting aid and trying to survive, rioting can break out, and then it becomes a matter of who is going to survive."
Ethnic groups living in the Irrawaddy Delta include Mon and Muslim Indian minorities and aboriginal groups. Relatively wealthy Chinese traders made up 10 percent of delta towns such as Lapputa, according to Myo Khin, a trader who has lost most of his family in the delta. They will likely flee to tend other businesses in Rangoon, he says.
"They will all move to [Rangoon], because they are rich. But the poor people like the Burmese and the Karen cannot move. They have no friends, no money," he continues.
He says he fears Chinese delta residents will also lose their land rights. "Everybody in Lapputa thinks the government is coming to steal their land. Lapputa is very important because it's near the sea. The government wants to turn this into a big navy area."