Children standing amid the debris of their village, which was destroyed by the cyclone, near the township of Kunyangon, Burma. Photograph: Adam Dean/EPA
Burma is still exporting rice even as it tries to curb the influx of international donations of food bound for the starving survivors of the cyclone that killed up to 116,000 people.
Sacks of rice destined for Bangladesh were being loaded on to a ship at the Thilawa container port at the mouth of the Yangon River at the end of last week, even though Burma’s ‘rice bowl’ region was devastated by the deadly storm a week ago.
The Burmese regime, which has a monopoly on the country’s rice exports, said it planned to meet all its contractual commitments.
With rice prices hitting a record high after more than doubling since January, the exports are a valuable source of foreign revenue for the junta and its allies. The fear is that with the rice-growing area in the Irrawaddy delta inundated with salt water from the huge tidal wave, Burma may need to import greater amounts of rice this year. Alarm at the prospect fuelled another spurt in rice prices during the week. The continuing rice sales looked like just another facet of the Burmese regime’s insensitivity to the suffering of its own people as it continues to block international relief to cyclone victims and pressed ahead with the constitutional referendum yesterday. The Burmese leader, General Than Shwe, has urged people to vote ‘yes’ .
Critics claim the referendum is designed to cement the generals’ hold on power as it reserves 25 per cent of the seats in parliament for the military. They say it should have been postponed because of the disaster.
Many of the cyclone’s victims have received little aid. International relief from the UN and other agencies has been blocked, and disaster management experts barred from entering even though there has been little evidence that the Burmese military is alleviating the suffering.
A spokesman for the World Food Programme (WFP) said two planes containing humanitarian supplies had ‘not been released’ by the Burmese authorities after arriving in Rangoon airport yesterday.
The planes contained ‘critically needed supplies and equipment’ provided by the WFP, UNHCR and other aid organisations. While the sacks of rice for export were being loaded on to the freighter at Thilawa last Friday, cyclone survivors from surrounding villages said they had received only hand-outs of spoiled rice from the port’s warehouse, where the storm had soaked 40 per cent of the stored rice.
The cyclone, which hit Thilawa early on Saturday morning, blasted the port so severely that one of the three enormous container cranes toppled and was left crippled. In the nearby village of Thamalone, just 15 miles from Rangoon, the only aid has come from the Free Family Funeral Association which usually provides coffins for poor families but used its trucks to deliver rice to villagers.
south east Asia correspondent
Sunday May 11 2008