Myanmar victims 'forced to return'

Aid groups criticise military's move to send cyclone survivors back to ruined villages.

    The US has accused the Myanmar military government of "criminal neglect" [AFP]

    Cyclone survivors in Myanmar are allegedly being forced to return to their devastated villages as the military government tries to show that it is capable of handling the humanitarian crisis.


    Various UN aid agencies have criticised the move, saying it would increase the risk of disease as millions of survivors are forced out of emergency camps back to areas with no aid supplies.


    Aid workers returning from across the affected region are reporting that camps set up for homeless survivors in the Irrawaddy delta town of Bogalay were "totally empty".


    They say scores of displaced people have been expelled from temporary shelters in schools, monasteries and public buildings as part of a move to show that people were capable of rebuilding their lives without foreign help.


    The United Nations says at least 200,000 people are still waiting for food supplies nearly a month after Cyclone Nargis devastated the country's rice bowl.


    Some international aid agencies said their workers were still meeting survivors deep in the Irrawaddy delta who have not received any help since the storm hit.

    Forced out


    Aid groups say sending children back to school
    now would increase their health risk [EPA]

    Although the camp closures could not be confirmed, new video has emerged of victims who say they were forced out of emergency camps.


    The Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), a Norway-based media organisation run by Myanmar exiles, showed survivors saying that they had no choice but to move.


    "About 20 of us told them that we do not want to return to our village because we have nothing left to eat or to live," said an unnamed villager.

    "If we return our village, we are going to die, we told them."


    Reopening schools


    On Monday the Myanmar government prepared to reopen schools in several areas against the advice of aid agencies that fear the risk to the children's health.


    In depth: Myanmar cyclone

    Disease stalks survivors

    Witness: 'Utter devastation'

    Map: Cyclone's deadly path

    Satellite photos: 

    Before and after

    Timeline: Asia's worst storms

    Picture gallery

    Video: Cyclone-hit town struggles to rebuild

    Watch 101 East: Crisis in Myanmar

    The UN children's organisation, Unicef, says more than 4,000 schools were damaged or totally destroyed by the May 2-3 storm while more than 100 teachers were killed, adding that reopening schools in the delta "may be too ambitious" because the infrastructure and human resources were not yet in place.


    Still, Unicef is helping to train volunteer teachers and to hold some classes in camps and other temporary sites.


    "It's important for many reasons, we don't want the children to miss a school year and get behind, and it's important that amid the disaster they have some normalcy to their lives," Anupama Rao Singh, Unicef's regional director, told Al Jazeera.

    Michael Bociurkiw, a spokesman for Unicef who has just returned from a two-week visit to Myanmar, said children were mainly suffering from a lack of access to drinking water, nutrition and shelter.


    He said child survivors in disaster situations mostly craved a return to normalcy and the reopening of schools could provide that.


    "Going back to school is not just about learning," he told Al Jazeera. "It's about playing, about talking to their peers, about sharing their feelings."

    'Criminal neglect' 

    The UN says at least 200,000 people are still
    waiting for food supplies [EPA]

    Robert Gates, the US defence secretary, has accused Myanmar's military government of "criminal neglect".


    "Unless the regime changes its approach, its policy, more people will die," he said on Saturday. "I would describe it as criminal neglect."

    Despite severe criticism from the international community, however, the government continues to defend its actions, saying it acted promptly to bring relief to victims.


    Major-General Aye Myint, Myanmar's deputy defence minister, said the government was moving into the next phase of reconstruction.


    "As we have carried out considerable efforts in emergency search and rescue task, we are now emphasising on the second phase," he said.


    "Works in this phase include rebuilding homes and reconstruction of the villages for local people hit by the storm."


    Myanmar had promised the Association of South-East Asian Nations regional grouping to which it belongs that it would undertake a "speedy" resettlement and rehabilitation process.


    Aid officials also said that despite a promise to Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary-general, last week that it would ease travel restrictions for foreign relief workers, the government is still blocking access to some. 


    The government toll from Cyclone Nargis stands at 78,000 people with another 56,000 missing.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and agencies


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