RANGOON, Myanmar – The military government in Burma, also known as Myanmar, is removing cyclone victims from refugee camps and dumping them near their devastated villages with virtually no aid supplies, the United Nations said Friday.
In an aid agency meeting, the U.N. Children's Fund said eight camps earlier set up by the government to receive homeless victims in the Irrawaddy delta town of Bogalay had emptied as the mass clear-out of victims was stepped up.
"The government is moving people unannounced," said Teh Tai Ring, a UNICEF official, adding that authorities were "dumping people in the approximate location of the villages, basically with nothing."
Camps were also being closed in Labutta, another town in the delta, a low-lying area which took the brunt of Cyclone Nargis nearly a month ago.
About 2.4 million are homeless and hungry after the May 2-3 cyclone hit Burma, also known as Burma.
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Centralizing the stricken people in the centers made it easier for aid agencies to deliver emergency relief since many villages in the delta can only be reached by boat or very rough roads.
Aid workers who have reached some of the remote villages say little remains that could sustain their former residents: houses are destroyed, livestock has perished and food stocks have virtually run out. Medicines are nonexistent.
The UNICEF official said that some of the refugees are "being given rations and then they are forced to move." But others were being denied such aid because they had lost their government identity cards.
A senior U.N. official in Bangkok, Thailand, said he could not confirm the camp closures but added that any such forced movement was "completely unacceptable."
"People need to be assisted in the settlements and satisfactory conditions need to created before they can return to their place of origins," Terje Skavdal, head of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, told reporters. "Any forced or coerced movement of people is completely unacceptable."
There had been previous reports of forced removals, but on a scattered basis. In some cases, people were reportedly sent away ahead of visits by foreign dignitaries, and in others people were sent from schools that were to be used as voting places during a recent national referendum on a new constitution. People were also cleared out of some Buddhist temples where they had taken shelter, but in those cases apparently had been transferred to official refugee camps.
Human rights and aid groups also complained Friday that Burma's military government was still hindering the free flow of international help for victims.
Some foreign aid staff were still waiting for permission to enter the Irrawaddy delta while the regime continues to review entry requests for 48 hours, the groups said.
One foreign aid worker attending Friday's meeting said that in practice it took at least four days to obtain permission from the Ministry of Social Welfare to travel to the delta.
"The longer you want to stay, the longer it takes," he said, declining to give his name for fear of government reprisals.
"The Burmese government is still using red tape to obstruct some relief efforts when it should accept all aid immediately and unconditionally," the U.S.-based Human Rights Watch said in a statement.
The International Red Cross was waiting for permission to send 30 of its foreign staffers into the delta.
The regime has also barred naval vessels from the United States, France and Great Britain from entering Burma's waters, leaving them to wait offshore with their loads of humanitarian supplies. The French have been forced to dock in Thailand and turn over the relief goods to the United Nations for onward shipment into Burma.
"By still delaying and hampering aid efforts ... the generals are showing that, even during a disaster, oppression rules," Human Rights Watch said.
While welcoming millions of dollars from the international community for cyclone relief, Burma lashed out at donors for not pledging enough. State-run media decried donors on Thursday for only pledging up to $150 million — a far cry from the $11 billion the junta said it needed to rebuild.
The isolationist government agreed to allow foreign aid workers in after U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon met with leader Senior Gen. Than Shwe last weekend.
But delays continue, Human Rights Watch said.
Burma's government says the cyclone killed 78,000 people and left another 56,000 missing.
The country's xenophobic leaders are leery of foreign aid workers and international agencies, worrying they could weaken the junta's powerful grip. The generals also don't want their people to see aid coming directly from countries like the U.S., which the regime has long treated as a hostile power.
In Singapore on Friday, Sen. Joseph Lieberman said regional superpowers India and China should exert their influence over Burma's military junta to push it toward democracy. Lieberman, who is in Singapore to attend a security conference, said he and other senators have met with the ambassadors of the two countries in Washington to convey this message.