RANGOON, Burma – Calling coverage of the aftermath of a devastating cyclone distorted, the military junta of Burma — also known as Myanmar — lashed out at foreign media and its own citizens Friday.
The attack came after authorities detained a popular comedian who had just returned from helping survivors of the disaster and had said government aid was not reaching some victims.
Unconfirmed reports circulated Friday in Rangoon that at least a dozen people involved in filming cyclone victims in the Irrawaddy delta have been arrested.
The state-run New Light of Myanmar newspaper, considered a mouthpiece for the junta, accused "self-seekers and unscrupulous elements" of working in collusion with foreigners to shoot videos with made-up stories in storm-ravaged areas in the delta.
"Those foreign news agencies are issuing such groundless news stories with the intention of tarnishing the image of Myanmar and misleading the international community into believing that cyclone victims do not receive any assistance," the newspaper said.
The military junta has been criticized by international agencies for holding up shipments of food, water and temporary shelter supplies to some 1 million desperate survivors of Cyclone Nargis.
Well-known comedian Maung Thura — whose stage name is Zarganar — was taken from his home in Rangoon by police Wednesday night after going to the Irrawaddy delta to donate relief items to survivors, his family said.
A family member said Friday that they had heard nothing from Zarganar and the junta has given no reason for his detention.
"We stopped our cyclone relief activities yesterday, but we will have to resume our relief assistance tomorrow," the relative said.
Zarganar, 46, known both for his anti-government barbs and his work for cyclone victims, was taken into custody after police searched his house and confiscated some belongings. He and his team had made video records of their relief activities and Zarganar gave interviews to foreign media.
A representative of the human rights group Amnesty International said Zarganar's detention illustrated human rights concerns in Burma.
"There's simply no doubt this was done for political reasons ... but has an extra element because it can presumed to be linked to the humanitarian assistance effort," Amnesty International researcher Benjamin Zawacki said.
In a report, the London-based group cited several cases of forced labor in exchange for food in the delta and accused the junta of stepping up a campaign to evict the homeless from shelters.
The group also said authorities in several cyclone-hit areas continue to divert aid despite the junta's pledge to crack down on the practice.
"Unless human rights safeguards are observed, tens of thousands of people remain at risk," it said in the report. "Respect for human rights must be at the center of the relief effort."
The government says Cyclone Nargis, which struck May 2-3, killed 78,000 people and left an additional 56,000 missing. The U.N. says more than 1 million survivors still desperately need food, shelter or medical care.
This week, Zarganar gave interviews to several overseas media outlets, including the British Broadcasting Corp., that were critical of the government relief effort.