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Aid Agencies Careful Not to Push Myanmar Too Hard

NOAH ADAMS, host:

NPR reporter Michael Sullivan recently spend about 10 days inside Myanmar. He worked undercover there, because the military government does not welcome journalists. Sullivan left the country earlier this week. Today, he shares his impressions of what the people of Myanmar have been through since the cyclone struck at the beginning of May.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN: There's a small Hindu temple in the middle of Tategon(ph) village, about an hour or so, south of Yangon. And that temple, villager said, is what saved them when the cyclone hit.

Unidentified Man #1: (Speaking foreign language)

SULLIVAN: The entire village, all 250 men, women and children, this man says, crammed into the tiny stone structure and waited more than 10 hours for the storm to end. When they came out, he says, there was almost nothing left.

Unidentified Man #1: (Speaking foreign language)

SULLIVAN: Only four houses out of 48 is still standing. The villagers' food, their livestock, their seeds for the next rice crop, all gone he says. The fields flooded. And when I visited, two weeks after the cyclone struck, still not a lick of help from the military government.

Unidentified Man #1: (Speaking foreign language)

SULLIVAN: We wish the generals were gone, he says, but there's nothing we can really do about it. They are strong and we are afraid. They don't care about the people at all, all they care about, he says, is staying in power.

The military's decision to go ahead with its May 10th referendum on the new constitution in areas not affected by the storm, is perhaps the most stunning example of the general's indifference to the suffering of their people. The generals call the new constitution part of their road map to democracy, critics call it a sham, designed to cement the military's hold on power for several more decades. Either way, the vote was the lead item on the evening newscast. In fact it was about the only story on the evening news.

Unidentified Man #2: (Speaking foreign language)

SULLIVAN: On that Saturday, as aid groups begged the military for more visas, almost the entire half hour newscast was devoted to the referendum. Mostly shots of generals casting their ballots and ballot boxes stuffed with yes votes being emptied onto tables. The boxes for the no votes were oddly empty. The military had reminded voters - warned voters the week before - that it was their patriotic duty to vote yes.

(Soundbite of people talking)

SULLIVAN: What they didn't show on tape when media were start videos of survivors begging for food, captured on amateur video shot by Burmese volunteers who'd rushed to the delta after the storm, their cars packed with rice, dried fish, and bottled water to distribute to desperate survivors.

Bootleg video circulating widely around Yangon show pictures of large parts of the delta underwater; of survivors floating down rivers, clinging to bits of debris; and images of the dead, faced down the on the waters, stuck in trees or lying under broken buildings. It's not clear when the videos were taken. What is clear, according to several from people just back, is that there are many bodies still unburied three weeks in.

(Soundbite of chainsaw)

SULLIVAN: But on the streets of the former capital and in the state run media, the focus is now on the recovery effort and rebuilding - the military's position that the relief effort is now almost over. This despite UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon's lament, this week, that only 25 percent of those in need have been reached - 25 percent of more than two million. And even though they've been stymied in their efforts to get enough aid and aid workers into the country, most international aid agencies have been careful not to push the military too hard.

Mr. ERIC STOVER (Director, Human Rights Center, University of California): It's a very difficult situation.

SULLIVAN: Eric Stover directs the Human Rights Center at the University of California, Berkeley, and spent the last two weeks in Myanmar.

Mr. STOVER: They're in a situation where they have to be very careful in what they say. They don't want to say things that would in any way jeopardize their capacity to eventually help the cyclone survivors.

SULLIVAN: Taking the moral high ground and refusing to accept the government's conditions, Stover argues, would only hurt those who need help most. A point not lost on the generals.

Mr. STOVER: Never underestimate the ability of this military government to calibrate and decide how it's going to manage any problem on its own terms. They're very shrewd at doing this.

SULLIVAN: Shrewd at doling out visas and making other small concessions, bending just enough to keep the threat of a more forceful international response off the table - dashing the hopes of many Burmese as they were dashed back in September during the brutal crackdown a monk-led demonstrations against the government. A crackdown that left dozens dead and many more in prison or in exile. For a few heady days back then, some on the streets of Yangon and Mandalay dared to hope out loud that the international community would intervene to stop the military. I heard the same thing for the first couple of days on this trip too, but only for a few days. After that, the people had pretty much figured out who'd won, again.

Michael Sullivan. NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michael Sullivan is NPR's Senior Asia Correspondent. He moved to Hanoi to open NPR's Southeast Asia Bureau in 2003. Before that, he spent six years as NPR's South Asia correspondent based in but seldom seen in New Delhi.