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Burma Not Thankful For US Warships Offering Aid

Burma Not Thankful For U.S. Warships Offering Cyclone Aid


By Richard S. Ehrlich

BANGKOK, Thailand -- When Burma's biggest enemy the United States offered to send emergency cyclone relief, it probably sounded like North Korea wanting to send its warships and troops to New Orleans to rescue people in the aftermath of Katrina.

Imagine North Korea simultaneously trumpeting their purported benevolence with public insults against Washington for not warning Americans, or providing them with escape routes, before Hurricane Katrina hit the coast.

To complete the comparison, this through-the-looking-glass North Korea would also be successfully strangling the U.S. with harsh international economic sanctions, fueling widespread unemployment, a shattered banking system and other woes for most Americans in a failed bid to change Washington's policies.

Little wonder why Burma, a xenophobic Southeast Asian country also known as Myanmar, recoiled in silence when Washington said it just wants to help.

Then the Pentagon offered to send its nearby USS Kitty Hawk and USS Nimitz to Burma's cyclone-stricken Irrawaddy River delta. The USS Kitty Hawk's warplanes dropped "more than 20 tons" of bombs on Iraq, the U.S. Navy said on the aircraft carrier's proud web site.

Seen through the eyes of Burma's military, in power since a 1962 coup, U.S. foreign policy is always perceived as a 21st century Trojan Horse.

"Britain, France, Dutch, Belgium, Spain, Portugal and the U.S. colonized 77 percent of the world land, or enslaved 75 percent of world population," Burma's military junta told its citizens in a typical history lesson, while praising its own regime as altruistic. "Today, the world superpower...is invading other countries on the pretext of anti-terrorism and democracy. And it has formed puppet governments.

"It has failed to withdraw its troops from Iraq and Afghanistan for seven years," the government-run New Light of Myanmar newspaper said just before Cyclone Nargis hit.

Without much international aid allowed in, people trapped on the Irrawaddy delta scrounged to stay alive on Wednesday in hot, humid weather, unable to secure enough drinking water, aid officials said. Rotting corpses floated in swollen rivers, amid disease-carrying mosquitoes and angry scenes in some places where food was thought to be available, they said.

Burma opened Rangoon's international airport to flights bringing cyclone relief sent by neighboring Thailand, because the two Buddhist- majority countries are commercial friends.

Burma also welcomed India's offer to send two ships packed with aid, because it enjoys New Delhi's efforts to compete with Beijing, which was also allowed to help.

In response to increasing international pressure, the World Food Program, and Medicines Sans Frontiers Holland, have already been permitted to distribute food in Rangoon, the port also known as Yangon, according to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) sent "small relief items" from Rangoon to sites in the Irrawaddy River delta "reachable by road," OCHA said.

Most other relief efforts by foreign countries, non-governmental organizations, Christian missionaries, and child welfare groups have been told to wait for possible visas.

While countless thousands of survivors suffer on the exposed, sea- level, worst-hit Irrawaddy delta, Burma's military regime appeared to be more concerned with displaying its troops -- instead of foreigners -- handing out food, water and other assistance during broadcasts on government-run TV.

Burma's lack of enthusiasm for allowing foreigners to be seen taking care of Burmese is similar to the regime's traditional disregard for rice farmers, fishermen and other impoverished people struggling on the densely populated delta during previous seasonal cyclones.

"Despite being a cyclone prone country, Burma has no cyclone warning system," said London-based Chatham House's Dr. Gareth Price and Tamara Lynch.

"Military leaders have been publicly criticized, particularly by the U.S., for failing to warn and adequately prepare its citizens. While this criticism may be politically motivated, one of the key successes of neighboring Bangladesh has been in establishing a storm early-warning system along with 'cyclone safe' houses," the analysts said in a joint statement.

Neighboring Bangladesh's cyclone shelters are bleak cement rooms perched high on reinforced concrete stilts, but villagers can scramble into the boxes and survive a cyclone's fierce winds and rising tide surges.

Burma's junta leads 500,000 troops who are battle-hardened from more than 50 years of jungle warfare against minority ethnic guerrillas fighting for autonomy or independence along its borders.

Not many of those toughened troops, however, have ventured along the crippled roads of the Irrawaddy delta except to secure the main road and provide skeletal assistance.

Some military officers arrived by helicopter at Bogalay town to assess the damage where more than 10,000 people reportedly perished, but many survivors throughout the delta remained bloodied and ill without medical care and little food.

*************

Richard S Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based journalist who has reported news from Asia since 1978. He is co-author of "Hello My Big Big Honey!", a non-fiction book of investigative journalism, and his web page is http://www.geocities.com/asia_correspondent

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