Junta warns against hoarding aid

Friday, May 16, 2008

YANGON, Myanmar -- Myanmar's junta warned Thursday it will punish anyone found hoarding or trading foreign aid meant for cyclone survivors, but relief groups said they had seen no evidence of people selling or stockpiling donated goods.

The government's warning came as the official death toll from Cyclone Nargis was raised to 43,318, an increase of almost 5,000 from a day earlier, but still far below U.N. and Red Cross estimates. The number of people listed as missing remained at 27,838.

Myanmar's military, which has ruled for 46 years, has itself come under suspicion of diverting relief supplies. Its warning against hoarding alluded to the allegations, saying the regime is rushing all donated supplies to those in need.

Tons of food, water, blankets, mosquito nets, medicine and tents have been flown in to Myanmar from international donors, but delivery to the 1.5 million to 2 million affected by the May 3 storm has been slowed by bottlenecks, poor infrastructure and bureaucratic tangles.

New York-based Human Rights Watch said countries delivering aid to Myanmar should insist on monitoring the shipments to ensure all aid reaches the neediest and to prevent the military from diverting any supplies.

The group also said it had confirmed an Associated Press report this week that the junta took control of high-protein biscuits supplied by the international community and then distributed low-quality, locally produced substitutes to civilians.

Leaving the aid at Yangon's airport "under the control of the abusive and ill-equipped ... military will not necessarily help victims of the cyclone," Human Rights Watch said.

The government warning on hoarding obliquely referred to such concerns.

"The government has systematically accepted donations and has distributed the relief goods immediately and directly to the victims," said the warning, carried on state radio. "Effective legal action will be taken against those who hoard, sell or buy, use or misuse the international or local donations or relief goods or cash to the cyclone victims."

Private citizens who have tried to carry food and other aid to the Irrawaddy River delta, the low-lying coastal area ravaged by the cyclone, said they had been stopped and forced to hand over the supplies to the army, which is directing the relief operation.

The civilians, who asked not to be identified for fear of retribution by authorities, expressed worry their supplies would be pilfered by the army.

Elisabeth Byrs, spokeswoman for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, said the United Nations had looked into whether people were misusing emergency supplies.

"Some aid workers visited all the major markets in Yangon to see whether they could find out anything by observations or interviewing people. They found no evidence of any sale of relief goods or hoarding or any credible report on this," she said.

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies also said it had seen no evidence of hoarding.

"We haven't had any reports at all back from the delta or Yangon on that. Obviously we're aware of the media reports," Red Cross spokesman Matthew Cochrane said in Geneva.

The U.S. military, which has been allowed to fly in supplies to Yangon airport despite the prickly relations between the junta and Washington, said it is optimistic aid is getting through.

"It's impossible for us to completely verify that all the relief supplies are getting to the affected areas, but we are monitoring that through our contacts that are inside the country," Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said, referring to U.N. and private aid groups. "And to the best of our ability, to date, we have not seen any U.S. assistance that has been diverted."

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