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Page last updated at 14:14 GMT, Friday, 23 May 2008 15:14 UK

Burmese murmurs of anger at junta

By Gavin Hewitt
BBC News, Burma

A boy displaced by Cyclone Nargis in Kyondah village, Burma, on 22 May 2008
The cyclone has affected the lives of millions of Burmese

The Burma cyclone is unlike any disaster I have covered.

It starts at the international airport in Rangoon.

Usually, after a few days, an air bridge has been established and the skies are crowded with helicopters and military transport planes.

In Rangoon on Friday, there were just two transport planes.

You could fly in and not have the slightest clue there was a crisis.

After a few days of chaos, the Burmese authorities began to erect road blocks.

They were there to keep foreigners from seeing the delta.

As the days have passed, the restrictions have only tightened.

Even leaving Rangoon on the road south has become difficult.

Foreign 'threat'

At the first checkpoint on the edge of the city, there were not only troops and police but also immigration officers.

They were there to take the details of foreigners and to check the basis on which they had come into the country.

They also took the names of any Burmese drivers or translators. We knew some who received visits at home. It is dangerous to help a foreigner.

Damaged rice paddies in Kyondah village, Burma, on 22 May 2008
The junta is accused of trying to hide the true extent of the disaster

When journalists began approaching boat owners to take them through the canals and along the rivers, the Burmese authorities warned that boats would be confiscated if they carried foreigners.

We approached a man who wanted to take us but insisted that we get a police permit.

We offered to pay him for the journey. Money could not buy a frightened man.

And then we discovered that on many of the rivers there were also checkpoints.

'Prestige'

Indeed, some of the boats that might have helped in the stricken south were on station checking who was moving through the waterways.

This week troops were handing out leaflets to Burmese citizens. A student brought one to us.

The authorities wanted to discourage people acting alone and offering aid to the cyclone victims.

Ordinary people have played a significant part in helping those who have lost everything.

Many headed south with medical supplies.

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Inside a camp for homeless cyclone survivors in Labutta

The aid agencies, which have not been able to deploy their international teams, have relied hugely on their Burmese staff.

The message from the government, however, is that the emergency phase of the crisis is over.

In their hastily printed leaflets they warn people that delivering aid is only attracting children and others who do not really need help.

What lies behind this campaign is a fear that foreigners might exploit the situation and undermine the "prestige of the Myanmar nation".

For all the attempts to curtain off this crisis, it is not working with the Burmese people.

The local papers show rows of neat tents with well turned out refugees standing outside.

Informers

The message is obvious: that Burma is coping without the need of outsiders. Indeed there are almost daily exhortations to beware foreigners getting involved.

On the streets and in the villages I was surprised how well informed people were.

An uprooted tree in Rangoon, Burma, on 21 May 2008
The cyclone damage wreaked in Rangoon pales beside that in the delta

Almost everyone knew that French and American military ships were off the coast loaded with aid. One man told me how angry he was.

He felt help should be taken from anyone who offered it. Ordinary people are very welcoming to outsiders.

Even though I was working largely undercover, people were openly critical of the regime.

The efforts to massage the reality of this disaster have not succeeded.

At the junctions in Rangoon, they are selling DVDs of the tragedy.

Bizarre belief

The pictures are graphic, uncensored. Bloated bodies lying uncollected in the delta.

Strangely, the military regime has not tried to stop these images, many of which were taken by ordinary Burmese people.

The result is that people know the scale of the disaster and cannot understand why help is not taken from those who offer it.

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We met students who are threatening strikes and protests if international help is not accepted.

Some are veterans of previous protests but others have become "activists" because of the cyclone.

The generals who run the country fear any weakening of their control.

Outside the hotels are the informers who phone the police when you step inside a private vehicle.

Among the senior officers there is a fear that foreigners will undermine their power.

The military regime hopes, bizarrely, that this crisis might even enhance their prestige.

Much of the aid is transferred to army trucks. They want the people to see Burmese soldiers saving the people.

The impression I formed is that people are becoming more outspoken and a few are unafraid.


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