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Page last updated at 22:45 GMT, Tuesday, 20 May 2008 23:45 UK

Burmese dodge junta to supply aid

Private donors arriving in Burma's Delta region
A donor sent this photo of survivors lining the roads waiting for aid
As the UN calls for relief efforts to be scaled up to avoid more deaths in Burma's cyclone-hit delta region, the BBC News website's Samanthi Dissanayake has been speaking to local residents about their attempts to get aid to the devastated areas.

Names have been changed to protect people's identities.

Driving through a watery wasteland handing out food to desolate storm survivors is something Win will never forget.

Local Burmese people were the first on the scene after Cyclone Nargis brought destruction to the fertile landscape of the Irrawaddy Delta.

Win was one of those who filled up a car with food and blankets and made the journey down south.

"People in that area need everything. They have no shelter. They stand by the road like beggars asking for food," Win told the BBC News website. "I'll go down there again," he said. "But there are many difficulties."

It was not just the lashing rain but a fear of the ruling junta that impeded his progress.

Junta obstruction

A number of private donors from Rangoon told the BBC News website that they have met with hostility from the military in their attempts to distribute aid.

After close questioning by soldiers, some had been ordered to turn back to Rangoon with their aid. Others claim that the military confiscated their goods, saying that only the central authorities could distribute aid.

People in that area need everything...They stand by the road like beggars asking for food
Win, Burmese private donors
Tun Tun, another Rangoon resident who got together with friends to distribute aid down south ran into recalcitrant authorities in the Bago district.

"When we arrived in the first village, the police came to us and said not to distribute to the villagers. We all were very upset."

Tun Tun and his team of private volunteers simply moved on to the next village. Here the village head approached Tun Tun and said that he could not distribute aid there.

At this point, according to Tun Tun, "the villagers angrily confronted the village head".

The situation became clearer when the village head explained his predicament. He was ordered, on receiving aid from volunteers, to first make a list of the aid, then to report this to the township council, which would then report to the division council, which would then decide how and who to distribute aid to - but only after 24 May, the date of the postponed referendum.

"The villagers were very angry, very angry when they heard this. You know, they have been eating coconut, bamboo shoots and the inner stems of a banana for a week, " said Tun Tun.

After this experience Tun Tun was left bitter but with a greater resolve to channel aid down south.

map
Dodging the junta

Like Tun Tun, the other drivers of the private aid train from Rangoon to Irrawaddy have persisted in their efforts and people have found ways of bypassing the junta.

In the first chaotic week after the cyclone, as Burma struggled to grasp the enormity of the disaster, it became quite easy for people to slip past military checkpoints and head down south to the areas ravaged by the eye of the storm.

Due to the disruption, the normal rules of travel - Burmese people usually need official permits to visit other parts of the country - were relaxed.

But as the junta has gradually regained control, it has become more difficult for volunteers.

Volunteers do get through. One said it was important to make the journey in small convoys of one or two cars as these aroused less suspicion.

Others have said that having connections with somebody in the military is an advantage. Travelling with a monk of some standing or with somebody who has a relative in one of the affected regions also increases chances of getting through.

People have also been moving aid by boat through the waterways - partly because these are policed less, and partly because the remoter islands of the delta are best accessible this way.

Aid needed

Aid agencies have also been channelling aid to the south, using established Burmese contacts.

"We have an existing operation within the country, we have an existing relationship with the government. They understand how we work and have allowed us to mount an operation in the delta," said a spokesperson for the World Food Programme.

They want to stop information coming out of the region. The junta wants to be seen as if it can control the country.
Tin Htar Swe, BBC Burmese Service head
Many aid agencies have pre-existing local networks which have been providing aid to the worst-hit areas. But most agree that much more aid is needed and that the aid provided by private citizens can be critical.

Moira Reddick, head of disaster management for the British Red Cross said: "Local people are best placed to help local people who are vulnerable."

A doctor for the Merlin medical relief charity who has been to the badly-hit Laputta township told the BBC that there is a huge shortfall of aid.

"One village said it had received rice supplies that only met 20% of its needs... [and] many of those affected by the cyclone are at risk of malnutrition," said Dr Sean Keogh.

Horrific tales

A family stand in the ruins of their house in Kyauktan on 16 May 2008
Aid agencies say a huge operation is needed to help cyclone survivors
So many of the Burmese private donors are asking why the authorities seem so concerned to obstruct their progress when the need is so obvious.

Part of the problem for the junta is that many of these citizens were the first people to reach the remoter regions hit by the cyclone. They returned to Rangoon with tales of horrific destruction and of survivors left with no home, no food - and, more worryingly for the generals - no aid.

As the junta prevaricated over accepting offers of international aid, stories and images filtered through of the desperation fermenting in the south.

Tin Htar Swe, head of the BBC Burmese service, says there are a myriad of reasons to explain the junta's attitude.

"Among the benefactors could be journalists, and there could be non-genuine benefactors who want to collect information. They want to stop information coming out of the region.

"The juntas want to be seen as if they can control the country. All along they have said that the country would disintegrate if the military was not taking care of it. They need to be able to show people they can do that. They are paranoid of losing control," she said.

Win, the private donor from Rangoon, witnessed this paranoia when he saw the military shifting storm survivors from the side of the road and temporarily out of sight as a UN truck rolled down an ostensibly deserted route.


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