Page last updated at 17:35 GMT, Friday, 16 May 2008 18:35 UK

Negotiating aid politics in Burma

By Mike Thomson
BBC News

Burmese soldiers unload boxes donated by relief charity Shelterbox at Rangoon airport (16 May 2008)
Aid agencies have been frustrated by lack of access to affected areas
Getting aid staff and relief supplies into Burma is already difficult. Criticise the country's generals and it threatens to become impossible.

This belief has prevented foreign aid agencies from airing problems they encounter with local authorities.

However, deepening concern about the fate of tens of thousands of people who have yet to get help, along with my promise of anonymity, has persuaded one senior aid agency worker to speak out.

Speaking over the phone from his base in Rangoon, James (not his real name) began by telling me: "One of the things you learn is that whatever the government says nationally and wants to be seen to be saying as its government policy, things on the ground are often quite different."

They report stories of the prime minister giving out televisions and DVD players to people living in temporary shelters
James, aid worker

This may come as a surprise to many, given that the regime is insisting that the cyclone relief operation is now over, even though thousands of people in the worst areas have yet to receive any help at all.

This bizarre claim comes at a time when Britain's Foreign Office estimates that 217,000 people may already have died, a figure that rises by the day and may soon surpass the number killed in 2004's tsunami.

One of the biggest concerns following Cyclone Nargis has been the Burmese junta's reluctance to help their own people whilst simultaneously rejecting most help from outside.

But James insists that it is still possible to get around the generals.

Local contact

An unidentified Burmese general hands out food bags in a shelter. Image taken from state run television station MRTV-3
Military leaders have been shown on TV distributing aid to victims

The trick, it seems, is to approach local officials in outlying offices. Often closer to the people in need, which may include their own families, they will often grant permission for aid teams to enter restricted areas provided that their bosses do not know about it.

"The official line is nobody can bring in stuff unless they give it to the government, all the distribution is being done by the government.

"Whereas actually, on the ground, we have permission from local authorities to distribute ourselves in lots of places where officially it is only the government distributing."

The trouble is that this is a country where any official thought to have made the "wrong" decision, can find himself in deep trouble with his military masters.

As a result some prefer to make no decision at all about some aid shipments for days on end while people in desperate need continue to suffer.

James says that senior army officers have been drafted in to take charge of some aid distribution points. Agencies asking to send relief supplies to areas that these officers come from will often get approval quickly, even if these places are officially out-of-bounds.

Not that you will find such accounts of dubious practices in the state-run newspaper The New Light of Myanmar. Instead, it is full of stories of smiling military leaders rushing to help their people.

James says that the generals seem to believe that the biggest need of those without homes, food, water and often their entire families is the latest electronic gadgetry.

"They report stories of the prime minister giving out televisions and DVD players to people living in temporary shelters, which is a bizarre form of relief supply especially when most of these people will not have any electricity."

The bad news for the generals, who have long been despised by much of the outside world, is that such tactics have done nothing to improve their popularity at home either.

"We certainly haven't been out there taking polls, but there does seem to be a high level of anger. I mean, there is in normal times towards the regime but it has certainly intensified."

Not that the men at the top seem to care.

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