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Burmese get only the scraps

Cyclone victims report receiving rotting rice rations as Myanmar's ruling generals export the valuable grain.

May 10, 2008|From a Times Staff Writer

THILAWA, MYANMAR — While Myanmar's military regime Friday restricted the rush of international aid offered to help hungry and homeless cyclone survivors, the government was exporting tons of rice through its main port.

Four of the five berths at the port of Thilawa for oceangoing container vessels were empty, but a crane was loading large white sacks into the hold of a freighter. The sacks were filled with rice destined for Bangladesh, said the drivers of at least 10 transport trucks waiting to deliver several tons more of rice to the docks.

The regime has a monopoly on rice exports and said this week that it planned to meet commitments to sell rice, whose price has reached record highs on the world market, to countries such as Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, even though Myanmar's main rice-producing region suffered the worst damage from the cyclone, which hit a week ago.

The storm caused massive destruction in the Irrawaddy River delta, where farmers are now desperate for food.

As rice was loaded onto the freighter, people in nearby villages said authorities had handed out rations of rotting rice, apparently from ruined stocks in the port's massive warehouse. The storm soaked about 40% of the stored rice, worth millions of dollars, said the chief driver, who requested anonymity to avoid problems with government officials.

India, Vietnam, China and Cambodia had curbed rice exports this year to ensure adequate supplies for their people amid a mounting world food crisis.

Tropical Cyclone Nargis packed winds of 120 to 150 mph, snapping large trees and concrete fence posts, and bending steel electricity poles at a 45-degree angle. About 23,000 people died, according to officials, with tens of thousands still missing. One survivor described the sound of the storm as otherworldly, a high-pitched howl mixed with a blood-curdling screech.

The wind pummeled the port of Thilawa so hard that it toppled one of at least three multi-ton gantry container cranes. The 10-story behemoth lay crippled on its side Friday.

Kyaw Win, 31, head of the village of Thamalone, swore at the mention of the military rulers. As he stood among broken wood planks, woven bamboo and thatch that had been his neighbors' homes, he began to cry.

The village is only 15 miles from Myanmar's commercial center, Yangon. It's easy to reach by road and close to the country's best seaport. But the only relief aid came from a private charity, the Free Funeral Service Assn.

Headed by movie star and opposition supporter Kyaw Thu, the association normally provides coffins so the poor can get a proper burial. But since the weekend storm, the charity's pickup trucks and volunteer workers have been one of the main lifelines in the disaster zone.

They delivered 4.4 pounds of rice each to many families Wednesday and promised to return in a few days with more.

Villagers said that they saw cartons of instant noodles unloaded at a government office and that officials kept them for themselves.

The only help the villagers received from the government was half a pound of rotting rice, they said, and the absurdity made them laugh.

Residents said they were used to the military, which has ruled Myanmar, also known as Burma, since 1962. The generals who rule one of Asia's poorest countries also sell gems and timber through state-controlled companies.

The storm flattened the wood-frame home of Kyaw Kyaw, 38. Like most of the village, Kyaw Kyaw, his wife and their two small children had taken refuge across the road in a Buddhist monastery that remained standing despite losing its roof.

A bus conductor, Kyaw Kyaw earned $1.50 a day before the cyclone struck. The storm knocked out power to most areas in the south, so the plant that provides compressed natural gas for the buses is shut down.

Villagers are helping one another rebuild their homes with materials they can scrounge locally, but like Kyaw Kyaw, they need donated food to survive.

Thousands of homeless people across the devastated countryside in the south are living anywhere they can, in restaurants, Buddhist temples and ruined buildings, any place that offers a little shelter from the heavy rain that is expected over the coming days.

One family crouched like cave dwellers in the remains of their collapsed shop, where they had just enough space between the fallen roof and the floor to move around on their haunches. Others scavenged in the rubble of destroyed and abandoned homes for usable pieces of wood and corrugated roofing.

Already poor, the eyes of many of the villagers were bloodshot and yellowing in wan, weary faces.

One mother who needed a rest from carrying her infant put him on the fallen roof of a house and gave him a small piece of a shredded bamboo wall to play with, as casually as she once would have put him on a chair.

By late Friday, it remained unclear what the military regime might allow by way of assistance, including help from the United States and other Western countries.

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