Ordinary Burmese are increasingly stepping in to help the country’s cyclone victims in the face of the chaotic efforts of their government.
They range from shopkeepers offering free rice porridge to medical students treating the countless sick.
“They are true humanitarian heroes,” said Bridget Gardner, International Red Cross representative in Burma. She toured an area where volunteers who had lost their own homes gave first aid to the injured.
Others, including taxi drivers, wealthy factory owners, students, teachers and movie stars, are organising in the commercial capital of Rangoon for gruelling trips into the Irrawaddy delta, the hardest hit region.
They are taking up collections at offices and donating food, clothes and water.
Meanwhile the military regime is still restricting critically needed international aid.
The junta, which has been accused of stockpiling aid supplies for its own use, today made a show of threatening legal action against anyone hoarding or trading them.
Reports have emerged that foreign aid was being sold openly in markets and that the military was pilfering and diverting aid for its own use. New York-based Human Rights Watch said the military had seized high-energy biscuits that came from abroad and distributed low-quality, locally produced biscuits to survivors.
The government says 38,491 people are known dead and 27,838 missing in the May 2-3 cyclone. But the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies estimated the death toll was between 69,000 and 128,000. The UN has said more than 100,000 may have died.
The UN and the Red Cross say 1.6 million to 2.5 million people are in urgent need of food, water and shelter. Only 270,000 have been reached so far by aid groups.
Tons of foreign aid, including water, blankets, mosquito nets, tarpaulins, medicines and tents, have been sent to Burma, but delivery has been slowed by bottlenecks, poor infrastructure and bureaucratic tangles.
The junta insists on taking control of the distribution, asserting it can handle the disaster on its own – a stance that appears to stem not from its abilities but its deep suspicion of most foreigners, who have frequently criticised its human rights abuses and crackdown on democracy activists.
It has allowed the UN and some other agencies to hand out the aid directly but barred the few foreign staff allowed into Burma from leaving Rangoon.
In a clear sign that politics is playing a role, the junta granted approval to 160 relief workers from India, China, Bangladesh and Thailand, which have rarely criticised Burma’s democracy record.
Police have turned back foreigners from checkpoints at the city’s exits.
“There is a visible fence that we don’t dare cross,” said Tim Costello of aid group World Vision.
He said the group has delivered aid to 100,000 people in spite of the “narrow parameters.” But there are tens of thousands more who have not received help due to heavy rain and lack of helicopters and expert staff.
“While you are getting aid through, it’s like getting it through on a 3-inch pipe not 30-inch pipe,” Mr Costello said.
As a result, ordinary citizens – businessmen, housewives, monks, Christian priests and students – have rushed to provide help.
But even they are being restricted by the security forces, said Zaw Htin, a 21-year-old medical student who visited hard-hit Bogaley town yesterday.
“They (the military) don’t want us to stay and talk to people. They want us to leave the supplies with them for distribution. But how can I treat them if I can’t talk to them? How do we administer medical care if we can’t touch them, feel their pulse or give them advice?” she said.
“It was overwhelming even for us who have seen a lot of suffering and death,” Zaw Htin said.