Saturday, June 14, 2008

Burma Gives "Cronies" Slice of Storm Relief/Burma: Thousands of Children Orphaned by Cyclone Nargis

Burma Gives "Cronies" Slice of Storm Relief

Friday 13 June 2008

by: Glenn Kessler, The Washington Post

On magazine's list of junta's chosen tycoons are some facing US sanctions.

Just seven days after Cyclone Nargis devastated Burma last month, the ruling military junta parceled out key sections of the affected Irrawaddy Delta to favored tycoons and companies, including several facing sanctions from the U.S. Treasury, according to a Burmese magazine with close ties to the government.

Some of the most notorious business executives in Burma, including Tay Za and Steven Law, also known as Tun Myint Naing, were given control of "reconstruction and relief" in critical townships, under the leadership of top generals. Tay Za was identified by Treasury as a "regime henchman" this year when it slapped economic sanctions on hotel enterprises and other businesses he owns.

All told, more than 30 companies and 30 executives are to divide up the business in 11 townships in areas affected by Nargis, according to the report.

The document in the magazine is dated May 9, a time when the United Nations, aid groups and many countries were pleading with the Burmese government to allow access to affected areas in the aftermath of the storm, which killed as many as 130,000 people and left 2.5 million without homes. Despite promises of greater openness, the Burmese rulers have continued to impose restrictions on aid relief, including new and onerous identification requirements for aid workers, according to reports from the region.

The document, which includes the cellphone numbers for many of the executives, was published in the Voice, a weekly journal published by Nay Win Maung. A translation was provided by BIT Team, a group of India-based Burmese who try to promote information technology in the xenophobic country.

Nay Win Maung is a son of a military officer and was brought up among Burma 's military elites, giving him good connections to military insiders. His magazines can access government-related news and exclusive information.

"The Treasury is targeting the regime's cronies, and the regime wants its cronies to get the money," said Tom Malinowski, Washington advocacy director for Human Rights Watch. "They see it as an opportunity to profit from the international community's compassion. But these are not experts in providing relief; they are experts in running guns and drugs and making a lot of money."

Efforts to reach Burmese representatives in Washington last night were unsuccessful. The cellphone number listed for Steven Law in the Voice was answered by an associate who said he was not available.

While some of the executives awarded contracts are well known to human rights activists and financial-crime experts, others are less prominent, potentially making the document a guide to the individuals currently in favor with the military leadership.

The government estimated it needed more than $11 billion in reconstruction aid shortly after the May 2-3 cyclone, a figure that met with a cool reception at an international donors conference in Rangoon three weeks ago. Burma, also known as Myanmar, is rich in natural resources, but much of the country is desperately poor. The junta has enriched itself with natural gas fields that bring in about $2 billion in annual revenue, as well as trade in jewels, heroin, amphetamines, timber and small arms.

Some of the conglomerates given business in the delta, such as Law's Asia World and Tay Za's Htoo Trading, were also tasked with building the country's new capital at Naypyidaw, more than 200 miles from the old capital of Rangoon. With little notice three years ago, the junta uprooted the capital to a remote area, requiring massive construction of new government buildings, hotels and housing for civil servants.

Much of the country, in fact, is a forced labor camp, with more than 60 prisons, labor camps and detention centers, according to a report this year by the Burma Fund, an anti-government activist group. People forced into construction are paid minimal wages, if at all.

Hlaing Sein, an officer with the London-based Burma Campaign UK , said that Htoo Trading, which was given control of Heingigyum and Ngaopudaw townships, forced cyclone victims to work for 800 kyat a day, roughly 70 cents, in order to meet a government order to reopen schools by June 2. But a quart of water in the delta now costs the equivalent of $1.50, she said.

The Treasury sanctions against Tay Za, Law and other junta cronies - and some of their companies - freezes their assets and prohibits all financial and commercial transactions by U.S. entities with the designated companies and individuals, as part of an effort to break up their financial networks. The Treasury has released detailed charts about the financial links among the junta and Tay Za, Law and related associates.

Tay Za, whose businesses include timber, palm oil and aviation, is said to be close to Senior Gen. Than Shwe, the junta leader, in part because of his habit of hiring the children of powerful generals. The Bangkok Post recently reported that though no public warnings were made about the approaching cyclone, air force fighters and private passenger planes from Bagan Air - believed to be a joint venture between Tay Za and Than Shwe's family - were moved the evening before the storm from Rangoon airport to Mandalay, which was not in its path.

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t r u t h o u t | 06.06

Burma: Thousands of Children Orphaned by Cyclone Nargis

Thursday 05 June 2008

by: Moe Yu May, InterPressService

Rangoon - Ko Ko Aung remembers the moment when he thought he had lost his older brother, Wai Yan Soe, to the powerful waters that tore through their house on the night Cyclone Nargis struck, one month ago.

"First Wai Yan Soe floated away from where he gripped a pole near our house, and later I [did]," the 11-year-old said, in a hesitant voice.

By then, the brothers had given up calling for their parents and two sisters for help. They had seen all four drown when a giant wave struck their home in a village near Labutta, one of the townships that took the worst beating in Burma 's Irrawaddy Delta.

Ko Ko Aung clung to a trunk of a palm tree all night to avoid being dragged off by the currents of the widening river. Many things floating in the river hit him as they went by. "I was so exhausted and it was very painful," he recalls

After a while, he managed to climb to the top of the tree, where he fell asleep. When he woke up the next morning, the water level had dropped and the scene before him was desolate: he found no one around.

Cyclone Nargis killed between 130,000 to possibly 300,000 people, and affected between 2.5 million to 5.5 million people.

"I climbed down and tried to look for someone, but I found no one and felt scared," Ko Ko Aung said. "I climbed up the tree and stayed there for two nights."

He survived without food and water until he spotted a few villagers - who had also survived the cyclone - heading towards a Buddhist monastery in a nearby village. It was there that he ran into Wai Yan Soe, 14, who had escaped drowning by holding onto a bush along the river.

Today, Ko Ko Aung and his elder brother are among 30 children orphaned by the cyclone that have found refuge in a Rangoon monastery. "Many children followed me and asked me to bring them along as they are helpless," Uttara, the 52-year-old senior monk of the monastery, said in an interview.

The 30 orphans under his care account for only about half of the vulnerable children he met when he rushed to the ravaged area soon after the worst natural disaster in Burma (or Myanmar ) stuck in the early hours of May 3. "It's a tragedy but I can't manage for all," he explained. "I can only take some who I think I can handle."

The monk's concerns about the cyclone orphans are shared by U.N. agencies and humanitarian groups that have been trying to offer relief and comfort to the millions affected by Nargis. The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) estimates that at least 2,000 children have been orphaned or have missing parents.

"There were 280 such children registered in Labutta, but we need more information to have a comprehensive picture," Alexander Krugger, child protection specialist at UNICEF's East Asia and Pacific regional office, in Bangkok, told IPS. "We have begun to register all unaccompanied children in the affected villages."

At the same time, UNICEF is facing a challenge from Burma 's military regime over the best way to care for these traumatised children. The junta - which has stood in the way of relief measures for the cyclone victims and severely limited foreign assistance to the delta - wants the orphans sent to state-run homes.

The junta has announced plans to build orphanages in Labutta and Pyapon, another badly affected township.

Children may account for a large number of those who died, since about 40 percent of the people living in the delta were children under 18 years, states Save the Children, a British charity.

"Institutions are detrimental to child development, especially for children under five," Krugger added during an interview with Marwaan Macan-Markar, IPS correspondent in Bangkok . "The government is aware that UNICEF is advocating for family-based care."

Part of UNICEF's strategy to help the orphans and other children cope with the trauma of the cyclone is to have them join "child friendly spaces," where the children can play, have opportunities to express themselves through art and feel safe in a secure environment. Currently, 80 such spaces have been set up in the delta, but the number is set to increase to 100. Each space holds between 50 to 350 children.

Concern for the children also stems from the emotional scars of the trauma they endured. "Orphans are more vulnerable because they do not have a natural protective environment," says Kaz de Jong, mental health specialist at Medecins Sans Frontiers (MSF- Doctors Without Borders), the global humanitarian agency that has many teams working in the delta. "In the camps in Labutta, children who are the sole survivors are withdrawn."

The quiet and withdrawn children were among many traumatised survivors that de Jong met while working in the delta. "I have seen a lot of people who are very sad, very anxious," he said at a press conference in the Thai capital on Wednesday. "People report they have difficulty to sleep, that they wake up at night. They see the last images of relatives [who died] coming back in their dreams, nightmares."

For Ko Ko Aung and Wai Yan Soe, Buddhist prayers and safety at the monastery are helping them to cope. The one who prays for them is their eldest brother, Thiha, who has been a novice at the monastery for four years.

"He prays for us every night before bedtime and I feel safe sleeping besides him," says Ko Ko Aung, looking at Thiha.

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