In Burma, a frustrated quiet

Without aid coming along Burma's Asian Highway, Burmese head east to find help.

Waiting: Burmese children lined up in Rangoon Monday to receive rice. Burmese report that more people are fleeing badly affected areas, raising concerns about new pressures from refugee flows.
Wally Santana/AP
Load ’em up: US soldiers at the Utapao air base near Rayong, Thailand, loaded a C-130 cargo plane Monday with supplies bound for cyclone-ravaged areas of neighboring Burma.
SOURCE: UN/Rich Clabaugh–STAFF

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.

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."

Three US ships are expected near the coast soon. A French naval ship is also on standby.

But aid workers remained frustrated with the slow pace and lack of visas being issued, even as a major operation was being organized to provide aid on the level of the 2004 tsunami. The World Food Program said it had only 10 percent of the staff and equipment it needed inside Burma, severely hampering its ability to move aid.

UN officials said that seven Burmese military helicopters were running between Rangoon west to Pathein, a staging area. The junta is also using small boats and two larger ships to deliver aid, they said.

Openness in Myawaddy

There was an unusually open and friendly atmosphere in Myawaddy on Monday, with little overt presence of uniformed police or military. That was in sharp contrast to the soldiers who came out in force to urge people to vote yes in the referendum last Saturday,

Immigration officials at the Thai border were hospitable, and truck drivers criticized the regime in front of the border post. A rickshaw driver wore a khaki tank top saying "US Army," while a soldier in a green military hat wore a vest saying "US military." Many locals said they had hope for change when they saw US helicopters flying near the border over the weekend.

An elderly silver-haired man, Htay Myint, immediately began to criticize the ruling junta in loud voice in English outside a golden temple. "Are you a journalist? I was a journalist too," he said. "Spies are following us, but I don't care. Burmese people want you to tell the world that we need your help. Many people here have lost relatives in the delta. But the military government does not let us go to the cyclone area. They have no procedures to send supplies or staff such as doctors and nurses. In our own country, we don't have the right to go from this place to that place. What a pity."

Mr. Myint, who quit his post as a township official in Kachin state and fled to Myawaddy several years ago, says Burmese people are more desperate for change than ever before. With little access to foreign media, they don't believe the reports on Myanmar state TV of generals helping cyclone victims. "Yesterday was lieing. Today is lying. Tomorrow will be lying," he says in good English. "The government is not delivering the aid to victims. They have no etiquette. They are not educated. They have no ability to help. Aid will never reach the victims. The local authorities will take it, believe me. I know what they are. They must allow foreigners to come in. But they are afraid foreigners will send out true information."

Myint says Myawaddy would become a boomtown if foreign aid passed through here, the shortest route between Thailand and Yangon. But Monday, few people were seen shopping in the main market and in the hundreds of family-owned shops along the Asian Highway. Hit with rising fuel prices, people keep motorbikes inside. Lacking work, young males play billiards on street-side tables, while women with cheeks smeared in thanaka bark watch TV or crowd around shops with public phones, trying to contact relatives. New construction projects, such as the Starlight Hotel, remain unfinished.

Myint said the cost of an egg in Myawaddy has doubled since the cyclone.

"It's very bad now," he says. "Next year, there will be no rice at all growing in Irrawaddy division. We can't trust to get rice from Yangon authority. We have to depend on rice from Thailand."

Wire material was used.

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