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Page last updated at 21:46 GMT, Tuesday, 5 August 2008 22:46 UK

Burmese still struggling after cyclone

By Nga Pham
BBC News, southern Burma

Shelter in the Irrawaddy Delta
Many survivors are still lacking assistance, particularly in remote areas

It has been three months since Cyclone Nargis struck Burma, leaving 130,000 people dead and hundreds of thousands homeless.

On a covert trip to the Irrawaddy Delta region, I found many of the survivors still in need, and the regime still suspicious of foreigners.

Recently, the government started letting aid workers in, but foreign tourists and journalists are still not allowed to visit the affected areas.

I had been warned by my Burmese colleagues that it would be very difficult to move around Burma, and I had to be aware of the many layers of security designed to keep a close eye on visiting foreign nationals.

My plan was to fly to Rangoon, then to hire someone who would be willing to accompany me to the Irrawaddy region.

I would be posing as a Burmese woman to avoid unnecessary attention. It turned out to be more difficult than I thought.

I got a traditional Burmese dress, the longyi. I was also prepared to smear myself with the sunscreen powder you see most Burmese women wearing on their faces.

But finding someone who would go with me was tricky, partly because I had to be careful not to put anyone in danger.

Many people were punished by the regime after the cyclone for helping foreign journalists, or simply because they were spotted travelling with journalists.

Via some contacts, I found a guide who agreed to go with me, on the condition that if he saw any sign of danger at all, we would immediately make our way back.

Temporary huts

We left Rangoon early in the morning. We took the ferry cross the Yangon river, swollen, dark and muddy with monsoon rains.

Along the road down into the Irrawaddy region, houses had been repaired, trees had been cut and replanted, pagodas repainted. Paddy fields were covered in the green of the new crop.

However, it was still possible to tell where the cyclone hit, from the pockets of temporary huts scattered across the region.

The cyclone struck at night, when we were sleeping - I saw houses collapsing around my house
Naing Win

Most of the huts I saw did not have proper roofs but were covered with plastic sheets provided by international agencies.

Some of the victims were sitting in the mud. As it is the rainy season, it rains almost daily and vast areas are still flooded.

My guide told me that local people have been warned by the authorities not to speak to foreigners and it took us a while to find someone who agreed to have a chat.

Mr Naing Win is a farmer whose family lost almost everything in the cyclone. I found him living with his wife and two children in a small hut.

"The cyclone struck at night, when we were sleeping," he said.

Farmers in paddy field
Crops are growing once more in paddy fields, but harvest is some way off

"I saw houses collapsing around my house. Then the rain started pouring down through the roof, which by that time was heavily damaged."

He had nowhere to go, he said, so he simply held a child in each of his arms and stood inside what was left of the house until dawn broke.

"Now we stay in this hut with nothing inside," said Mr Naing. "The children cough all the time because it is so damp.

"I would like to have somewhere better, more solid for my family to stay. But in order to build a proper house, we'd need at least 300,000 kyat ($300) and I don't think we'll ever have the money."

'Not enough'

The government has closed refugee camps in an attempt to prove that everything has returned to normal.

The Paritta Monastery in Kyauktan, near Rangoon, used to host some 250 families. Now, according to head monk U Pyinya Wanttha, they are all gone.

"About a month ago, the government came here and demanded that all the refugees go back to where they were from and they are now living in the temporary shelters that they've built from bamboos and pieces of wood," he told me.

He said the biggest problem now was to provide the victims with proper shelters, as nobody has any money left. And of course they need food, he added, because it will be some time before the new harvest.

U Pyinya Wanttha
Kind people have been donating food, but it is clearly not enough
U Pyinya Wanttha

"Kind people have been donating instant noodles and dry foodstuffs which we transfer to the refugees," said U Pyinya Wanttha. "But it is clearly not enough."

Survivors have complained that aid from the government has been scarce.

International charities warn that lack of food could affect millions. Limited access to clean water and unhygienic living conditions are other concerns.

Thu Ya, a local businessman who runs a private relief campaign in the Irrawaddy Delta, said the victims urgently needed help - particularly those in remote areas.

It is monsoon season and they are at risk contracting dangerous illnesses such as malaria, diarrhoea and lung diseases.

Military checkpoints

The United Nations has urged the Burmese government to assure continued access to remote communities, particularly for international non-governmental organisation partners.

International agencies like Save the Children are worried that since the spotlight seems to have turned away from Burma, it will be impossible to get sufficient funding

On the way into Irrawaddy region, I saw a number of premises emblazoned with agencies' names, such as Save the Children and Care, but did not see any foreign staff inside.

What I did see, in the space of three hours, were six or seven military checkpoints.

We had to beat a hasty retreat when my guide spotted a large military checkpoint ahead of us, where he said we would be stopped and searched.

A recent joint assessment by Asean, the UN and the Burmese government estimates that a further $1bn is needed for relief and reconstruction work in the country after Cyclone Nargis.

But international agencies like Save the Children are worried that since the spotlight seems to have turned away from Burma, it will be impossible to get sufficient funding.



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