Cyclone survivors 'made to work' for food aid

Burma’s military regime is forcing cyclone survivors to work in exchange for vital aid supplies, campaign group Amnesty International said today.

The ruling junta has also stepped up a campaign to evict the homeless from aid shelters.

Amnesty said authorities in several cyclone-hit areas continued to divert aid despite a pledge to crack down on the problem weeks ago.

“Unless human rights safeguards are observed, tens of thousands of people remain at risk,” Amnesty said in a report released today. “Respect for human rights must be at the centre of the relief effort.”

More than a month after the storm, many people in stricken areas still have not received any aid and the regime continues to impose constraints on international rescue efforts, human rights groups say.

US Navy ships laden with relief supplies steamed away from Burma’s coast today, their helicopters barred by the ruling junta even though millions of cyclone survivors need food, shelter or medical care.

The USS Essex group, which includes four ships, 22 helicopters and 5,000 US personnel, had been off the Burma coast for more than three weeks hoping for a green light to deliver aid to the survivors.

The government says Cyclone Nargis killed 78,000 people and left another 56,000 missing.

Amnesty’s report has 40 accounts of Burmese soldiers or local officials having confiscated, diverted or otherwise misused aid intended for cyclone survivors since the storm hit on May 2-3.

Although the junta has granted greater access to the hardest-hit Irrawaddy delta, “recent incidents of corruption and diversion of aid suggest a potentially serious threat to effective distribution of aid,” the report said.

Most of the cases involved authorities confiscating aid from private donors or arresting them for refusing to hand the aid over.

The report also cites several cases of forced labour in exchange for food in the delta.

In mid-May, people near the hard-hit delta township of Bogale were forced to “break rocks and level a field” to construct a helicopter landing pad in exchange for biscuits sent by the UN’s World Food Programme, the report said.

Others were given rice soup and shelter on condition that they cleared debris and built an official camp, the report said, adding that authorities told displaced survivors in nearby Labutta they would not receive food unless they worked.

Meanwhile, a campaign to kick homeless survivors out of temporary shelters in schools, monasteries and public buildings appears to have intensified.

The junta, which explicitly rejected the use of foreign military helicopters in the relief effort, still has not authorised the entry of nine civilian helicopters flying on behalf of the UN World Food Programme, although they have been sitting in neighbouring Thailand since last week.

Restrictions on visa and travel permission for foreign workers, as well as on entry of some equipment, continue to hamper the aid effort, despite a pledge made almost two weeks ago by junta leader Than Shwe to UN Secretary Ban Ki moon to allow foreign aid workers free access to devastated areas.

Out of the 2.4 million people affected, only 1.3 million survivors have so far been reached with assistance by local and international humanitarian groups.

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