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Sri Lanka bus blast kills 21
Bharatha Mallawarachi (AP) June 5, 2008
COLOMBO, Sri Lanka - A bomb ripped through a crowded passenger bus near Sri Lanka's capital during morning rush hour Friday, killing at least 21 people and wounding an additional 47, officials said.
The bombing was the second attack in three days targeting civilians. A blast targeting a passenger train wounded 18 passengers and bystanders in capital Colombo on Wednesday.
The country's military blamed the attack on Tamil Tiger rebels, who did not immediately comment on the blast. If carried out by the rebels, the attack would show their ability to strike deep inside government territory despite a maze of security checkpoints around the capital and its suburbs.
Tamil Tigers detonated a roadside bomb about 7:35 a.m., targeting a passenger bus in the Colombo suburb of Moratuwa, said Brig. Udaya Nanayakkara, the military spokesman.
Rebel spokesman Rasiah Ilanthirayan did not respond to calls seeking comment, but the rebels routinely deny such attacks.
The rebels, blamed for scores of suicide bombings and other attacks on civilians, are listed as a trrorist group by the United States, the European Union and India. Authorities have asked the public to remain vigilant in the wake of several bombings blamed on the rebels.
A blast blamed on rebels on a passenger train last month killed eight people and wounded 70 others near Colombo. Also last month, a bomb explosion deep in the rebel-held territory killed 16 people. Tamil Tigers blamed that blast on government forces — a charge the government denies.
The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs says more than 200 civilians have died in bombings since the beginning of the year in both government-controlled ethnic majority Sinhalese areas and northern rebel-held territory.
The Tigers have fought since 1983 to create an independent homeland for ethnic minority Tamils, who have been marginalized by successive governments controlled by the majority Sinhalese. More than 70,000 people have been killed.
Fighting has escalated along the northern front lines since the government withdrew from a long-ignored cease-fire in January.
The government has pledged to capture the rebels' de facto state in the north and crush them by the end of the year. But diplomats and other observers say the army is facing more resistance than expected.
In this May 23, 2008 file photo released by U.S.Navy, the USS Essex , center, and the Essex Amphibious Ready Group steam in formation, in the Andaman Sea. The Essex Amphibious Group is standing by in international waters off the coast of Myanmar in support of Joint Task Force Caring Response, a humanitarian assistance operation developed in the wake of Cyclone Nargis. The U.S. military ordered the navy ships loaded with relief aid off Myanmar's coast to leave the area Thursday after the country's xenophobic junta refused to give them permission to help survivors of last month's devastating cyclone.
US flotilla leaving Myanmar coast with aid aboard (AP)
June 4, 2008
YANGON, Myanmar - U.S. Navy ships laden with relief supplies will steam away from Myanmar's coast Thursday, their helicopters barred by the ruling junta even though millions of cyclone survivors need food, shelter or medical care.
More than a month after the storm, many people in stricken areas still have received no aid at all and the military regime continued to impose constraints on international rescue efforts, humanitarian groups said Wednesday.
"I am both saddened and frustrated to know that we have been in a position to help ease the suffering of hundreds of thousands of people and help mitigate further loss of life, but have been unable to do so because of the unrelenting position of the Burma military junta," said Adm. Timothy J. Keating, head of the U.S. Pacific Command. Myanmar is also known as Burma.
The USS Essex and three other amphibious assault ships, which have been in international waters off Myanmar since May 13, will continue with their previously scheduled missions, Keating said in a statement issued by his headquarters in Hawaii.
But Keating added that "should the Burmese rulers have a change of heart and request our full assistance for their suffering people, we are prepared to help."
He said the U.S. had made "at least 15 attempts" to persuade the junta to allow the ships, which carry 22 medium and heavy helicopters, four landing craft and 5,000 sailors and Marines, to deliver aid directly to victims in Myanmar's most badly damaged areas.
The junta also refused help from French and British warships that broke off from scheduled missions to stand by off Myanmar.
U.S. military C-130 transport planes hare being allowed to fly in relief supplies to Yangon, the country's biggest city, from a temporary base in Thailand.
Some 1.3 million survivors have been reached with assistance by local and international aid groups, the Red Cross or U.N. agencies, the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said.
But U.N. officials estimated 1.1 million more still needed help. "There remains a serious lack of sufficient and sustained humanitarian assistance for the affected populations," the agency warned.
The government says 78,000 people were killed by the May 2-3 cyclone and 56,000 more are unaccounted for.
The junta, which explicitly rejected the use of foreign military helicopters in the relief effort, has not authorized the entry of nine civilian helicopters flying on behalf of the U.N. World Food Program though they have been in Thailand since last week.
Only one helicopter chartered by the WFP was allowed in more than a week ago and it didn't begin flying supply missions from Yangon to the hard-hit Irrawaddy delta until Monday.
Restrictions on visa and travel permission for foreign workers, as well as on entry of some equipment, are hampering the aid effort, despite a pledge made almost two weeks ago by the junta's leader, Senior Gen. Than Shwe, to U.N. Secretary Ban Ki-moon to allow foreign aid workers free access to devastated areas.
"The small number of visas and the short duration of travel permits for access" into the delta area "continue to impose serious constraints on the effectiveness of overall operations," the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies said Wednesday.
In Washington, White House secretary Dana Perino criticized Myanmar's ruling generals for hindering aid efforts.
"The Burmese regime must permit all international aid workers the access necessary to provide the urgently needed assistance," Perino said. "There is no more time to waste."
Myanmar, meanwhile, reportedly has been able to field only seven helicopters of its own.
Paul Risley, a spokesman for the World Food Program, said the junta's refusal to let military helicopters work in the country meant the U.N. had to charter large civilian aircraft, adding greatly to his agency's costs.
The WFP has budgeted $70 million for food and ground operations and nearly as much — $50 million — to charter the 10 helicopters, he said. It has received contributions of about $50 million toward the total, he added.
In previous large-scale disasters — such as the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and Pakistan's 2005 earthquake — helicopters on loan from friendly nations' militaries were used to rush in emergency supplies, he said.
"For political reasons, the Myanmar government was reluctant to approve their use," Risley said.
The isolationist regime is extremely suspicious of outsiders, particularly of the U.S. and other Western nations that have criticized its harsh treatment of democracy advocates.
Despite the problems, the World Health Organization reported some cause for optimism.
In a report circulated Wednesday, it cited an assessment by the U.N. Children's Fund of conditions in hard-to-reach areas outside the town of Bogalay, one of the areas worst affected by the storm.
It quoted the assessment as saying that "there were no post-cyclone deaths in any of the villages assessed" as well as no signs of acute malnutrition. It also said suitable sources were found for clean water, assuming the use of some form of treatment.
The findings appeared to counteract fears there could be a "second wave" of deaths after the cyclone due to the lack of immediate large-scale assistance.
However, Doctors Without Borders warned that as monsoon rains become heavier, there will be more challenges supplying aid and keeping survivors healthy.
Sailing open boats with relief workers and supplies is becoming more difficult "because of the speed of the wind, because of the current, the storm," said Souheil Reaiche, the group's mission chief in Myanmar. "So they have to be careful."
Mobile clinics are filling in for the delta's wrecked medical facilities, but they can only do basic health care, Reaiche said.
People will develop more respiratory infections because they don't have proper shelter, he said. With mosquitoes beginning to recover from the cyclone's inundation, there are worries about dengue fever and malaria, he said.
Published: New York Times, May 27, 2008
The patient sat with his eyes closed, submerged in the rhythm of his own breathing, and after a while noticed that he was thinking about his troubled relationship with his father.
ANXIETY AID Zindel Segal, a psychologist, demonstrating meditative therapy.
“I was able to be there, present for the pain,” he said, when the meditation session ended. “To just let it be what it was, without thinking it through.”
The therapist nodded. “Acceptance is what it was,” he continued. “Just letting it be. Not trying to change anything.”
“That’s it,” the therapist said. “That’s it, and that’s big.”
This exercise in focused awareness and mental catch-and-release of emotions has become perhaps the most popular new psychotherapy technique of the past decade. Mindfulness meditation, as it is called, is rooted in the teachings of a fifth-century B.C. Indian prince, Siddhartha Gautama, later known as the Buddha. It is catching the attention of talk therapists of all stripes, including academic researchers, Freudian analysts in private practice and skeptics who see all the hallmarks of another fad.
For years, psychotherapists have worked to relieve suffering by reframing the content of patients’ thoughts, directly altering behavior or helping people gain insight into the subconscious sources of their despair and anxiety. The promise of mindfulness meditation is that it can help patients endure flash floods of emotion during the therapeutic process — and ultimately alter reactions to daily experience at a level that words cannot reach. “The interest in this has just taken off,” said Zindel Segal, a psychologist at the Center of Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, where the above group therapy session was taped. “And I think a big part of it is that more and more therapists are practicing some form of contemplation themselves and want to bring that into therapy.”
At workshops and conferences across the country, students, counselors and psychologists in private practice throng lectures on mindfulness. The National Institutes of Health is financing more than 50 studies testing mindfulness techniques, up from 3 in 2000, to help relieve stress, soothe addictive cravings, improve attention, lift despair and reduce hot flashes.
Some proponents say Buddha’s arrival in psychotherapy signals a broader opening in the culture at large — a way to access deeper healing, a hidden path revealed.
Yet so far, the evidence that mindfulness meditation helps relieve psychiatric symptoms is thin, and in some cases, it may make people worse, some studies suggest. Many researchers now worry that the enthusiasm for Buddhist practice will run so far ahead of the science that this promising psychological tool could turn into another fad.
“I’m very open to the possibility that this approach could be effective, and it certainly should be studied,” said Scott Lilienfeld, a psychology professor at Emory. “What concerns me is the hype, the talk about changing the world, this allure of the guru that the field of psychotherapy has a tendency to cultivate.”
Buddhist meditation came to psychotherapy from mainstream academic medicine. In the 1970s, a graduate student in molecular biology, Jon Kabat-Zinn, intrigued by Buddhist ideas, adapted a version of its meditative practice that could be easily learned and studied. It was by design a secular version, extracted like a gemstone from the many-layered foundation of Buddhist teaching, which has sprouted a wide variety of sects and spiritual practices and attracted 350 million adherents worldwide.
In transcendental meditation and other types of meditation, practitioners seek to transcend or “lose” themselves. The goal of mindfulness meditation was different, to foster an awareness of every sensation as it unfolds in the moment.
Dr. Kabat-Zinn taught the practice to people suffering from chronic pain at the University of Massachusetts medical school. In the 1980s he published a series of studies demonstrating that two-hour courses, given once a week for eight weeks, reduced chronic pain more effectively than treatment as usual.
Word spread, discreetly at first. “I think that back then, other researchers had to be very careful when they talked about this, because they didn’t want to be seen as New Age weirdos,” Dr. Kabat-Zinn, now a professor emeritus of medicine at the University of Massachusetts, said in an interview. “So they didn’t call it mindfulness or meditation. “After a while, we put enough studies out there that people became more comfortable with it.”
One person who noticed early on was Marsha Linehan, a psychologist at the University of Washington who was trying to treat deeply troubled patients with histories of suicidal behavior. “Trying to treat these patients with some change-based behavior therapy just made them worse, not better,” Dr. Linehan said in an interview. “With the really hard stuff, you need something else, something that allows people to tolerate these very strong emotions.”
In the 1990s, Dr. Linehan published a series of studies finding that a therapy that incorporated Zen Buddhist mindfulness, “radical acceptance,” practiced by therapist and patient significantly cut the risk of hospitalization and suicide attempts in the high-risk patients.
Finally, in 2000, a group of researchers including Dr. Segal in Toronto, J. Mark G. Williams at the University of Wales and John D. Teasdale at the Medical Research Council in England published a study that found that eight weekly sessions of mindfulness halved the rate of relapse in people with three or more episodes of depression.
With Dr. Kabat-Zinn, they wrote a popular book, “The Mindful Way Through Depression.” Psychotherapists’ curiosity about mindfulness, once tentative, turned into “this feeding frenzy, of sorts, that we have going on now,” Dr. Kabat-Zinn said.
Mindfulness meditation is easy to describe. Sit in a comfortable position, eyes closed, preferably with the back upright and unsupported. Relax and take note of body sensations, sounds and moods. Notice them without judgment. Let the mind settle into the rhythm of breathing. If it wanders (and it will), gently redirect attention to the breath. Stay with it for at least 10 minutes.
After mastering control of attention, some therapists say, a person can turn, mentally, to face a threatening or troubling thought — about, say, a strained relationship with a parent — and learn simply to endure the anger or sadness and let it pass, without lapsing into rumination or trying to change the feeling, a move that often backfires.
One woman, a doctor who had been in therapy for years to manage bouts of disabling anxiety, recently began seeing Gaea Logan, a therapist in Austin, Tex., who incorporates mindfulness meditation into her practice. This patient had plenty to worry about, including a mentally ill child, a divorce and what she described as a “harsh internal voice,” Ms. Logan said.
After practicing mindfulness meditation, she continued to feel anxious at times but told Ms. Logan, “I can stop and observe my feelings and thoughts and have compassion for myself.”
Steven Hayes, a psychologist at the Universityof Nevada at Reno, has developed a talk therapy called Acceptance Commitment Therapy, or ACT, based on a similar, Buddha-like effort to move beyond language to change fundamental psychological processes.
“It’s a shift from having our mental health defined by the content of our thoughts,” Dr. Hayes said, “to having it defined by our relationship to that content — and changing that relationship by sitting with, noticing and becoming disentangled from our definition of ourselves.”
For all these hopeful signs, the science behind mindfulness is in its infancy. The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, which researches health practices, last year published a comprehensive review of meditation studies, including T.M., Zen and mindfulness practice, for a wide variety of physical and mental problems. The study found that over all, the research was too sketchy to draw conclusions.
A recent review by Canadian researchers, focusing specifically on mindfulness meditation, concluded that it did “not have a reliable effect on depression and anxiety.”
Therapists who incorporate mindfulness practices do not agree when the meditation is most useful, either. Some say Buddhist meditation is most useful for patients with moderate emotional problems. Others, like Dr. Linehan, insist that patients in severe mental distress are the best candidates for mindfulness.
A case in point is mindfulness-based therapy to prevent a relapse into depression. The treatment significantly reduced the risk of relapse in people who have had three or more episodes of depression. But it may have had the opposite effect on people who had one or two previous episodes, two studies suggest.
The mindfulness treatment “may be contraindicated for this group of patients,” S. Helen Ma and Dr. Teasdale of the Medical Research Council concluded in a 2004 study of the therapy.
Since mindfulness meditation may have different effects on different mental struggles, the challenge for its proponents will be to specify where it is most effective — and soon, given how popular the practice is becoming.
The question, said Linda Barnes, an associate professor of family medicine and pediatrics at the Boston University School of Medicine, is not whether mindfulness meditation will become a sophisticated therapeutic technique or lapse into self-help cliché.
“The answer to that question is yes to both,” Dr. Barnes said.
The real issue, most researchers agree, is whether the science will keep pace and help people distinguish the mindful variety from the mindless.
A variety of meditative practices have been studied by Western researchers for their effects on mental and physical health.
An active exercise, sometimes called moving meditation, involving extremely slow, continuous movement and extreme concentration. The movements are to balance the vital energy of the body but have no religious significance.
Studies are mixed, some finding it can reduce blood pressure in patients, and others finding no effect. There is some evidence that it can help elderly people improve balance.
Meditators sit comfortably, eyes closed, and breathe naturally. They repeat and concentrate on the mantra, a word or sound chosen by the instructor to achieve state of deep, transcendent absorption. Practitioners “lose” themselves, untouched by day-to-day concerns. Studies suggest it can reduce blood pressure in some patients.
Practitioners find a comfortable position, close the eyes and focus first on breathing, passively observing it. If a stray thought or emotion enters the mind, they allow it to pass and return attention to the breath. The aim is to achieve focused awareness on what is happening moment to moment.
Studies find that it can help manage chronic pain. The findings are mixed on substance abuse. Two trials suggest that it can cut the rate of relapse in people who have had three or more bouts of depression.
Enhanced awareness through breathing techniques and specific postures. Schools vary widely, aiming to achieve total absorption in the present and a release from ordinary thoughts. Studies are mixed, but evidence shows it can reduce stress.
Cyclone exposes Myanmar generals' isolation
Myanmar warned against premature resettlement
May 31, 2008
YANGON, Myanmar - Cyclone victims in Myanmar who leave relief camps may not receive the aid they need, making them even more vulnerable to disease and the elements, a U.N. official said Saturday following reports of forced evictions by the government.
Human rights groups have lambasted Myanmar's military rulers, accusing them of kicking homeless cyclone survivors out of shelters. The U.S. defense secretary said the junta's blockage of international help has cost "tens of thousands of lives."
The sharp criticism came a day after a U.N. official reported the government was evicting cyclone victims from camps and "dumping" them near their destroyed villages with virtually no supplies a month after the storm unleashed its fury.
Anupama Rao Singh, regional director of the United Nations Children's Fund, who recently visited affected areas, warned Saturday against premature resettlement, even if it's voluntary. She did not confirm that evictions had taken place.
"Many of the villages remain inundated with water, making it difficult to rebuild," she said. "There is also a real risk that once they are resettled, they will be invisible to aid workers. Without support and continued service to those affected, there is a risk of a second wave of disease and devastation."
An estimated 2.4 million people remain homeless and hungry from this month's cyclone, which left at least 134,000 people dead or missing.
Hundreds, if not thousands, of displaced people also have been expelled from schools, monasteries and public buildings, Human Rights Watch said in a release Saturday. In the nation's biggest city, Yangon, there were eyewitness reports of one such eviction from a Christian church.
"The forced evictions are part of government efforts to demonstrate that the emergency relief period is over and that the affected population is capable of rebuilding their lives without foreign assistance," Human Rights Watch said.
Another group, Refugees International, said authorities appeared to be trying to get villagers back to their land to begin tending their fields and reviving agriculture.
"While agriculture recovery is indeed vital, forcing people home without aid makes it harder for aid agencies to reach them with assistance," it said.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates added his voice Saturday to critics of the junta's handling of the humanitarian crisis, calling the government "deaf and dumb" over its refusal to accept outside help.
"We have reached out, frankly, to Myanmar multiple times during this crisis in very direct ways," Gates said during an international security conference in Singapore. "We have reached out, they have kept their hands in their pockets."
The generals' obstruction of international efforts to help cyclone victims cost "tens of thousands of lives," he said.
Shortly after the cyclone struck, the U.S., France and Britain sent warships loaded with relief supplies, but the Myanmar regime has refused to let them land, apparently fearing a foreign invasion.
With U.S. ships off Myanmar's coast poised to leave because they have been blocked from delivering assistance to the ravaged country, Gates vowed that the U.S. will keep trying to deliver aid.
A day earlier Teh Tai Ring, also from UNICEF, reported at a meeting of U.N. and private aid agency workers that eight camps set up for homeless survivors in the hard-hit Irrawaddy River delta town of Bogalay were "totally empty" as authorities continued to move people out of them.
After his statement was reported, UNICEF issued a statement saying the remarks referred to "unconfirmed reports by relief workers on the relocation of displaced people affected by" the May 2-3 storm.
Separately, at a church in Yangon, more than 400 cyclone victims from a delta township, Labutta, were evicted Friday following orders from authorities a day earlier.
"It was a scene of sadness, despair and pain," said a church official at the Yangon Karen Baptist Home Missions in Yangon, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of official reprisals.
All the refuge seekers except some pregnant women, two young children and those with severe illnesses left the church in 11 trucks Friday morning.
The authorities told church workers that the victims would first be taken to a government camp in Myaung Mya — a mostly undamaged town in the Irrawaddy delta — but it was not immediately clear when they would be resettled in their villages.
Aid groups, meanwhile, said Myanmar's military government was continuing to hinder foreign assistance for victims of the cyclone, despite a promise to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to ease travel restrictions.
Some foreign aid workers were still awaiting visas, and the government was taking 48 hours to process requests to enter the Irrawaddy delta, the groups said.
Aid workers who have reached some of the remote villages say little remained that could sustain the former residents. Houses were destroyed, livestock were dead and food stocks have virtually run out. Medicines were nonexistent.
"Our teams are still encountering people who have not seen any aid workers and still have not received any assistance. Some of the villages that are only accessible by foot are particularly vulnerable," said the aid group Doctors Without Borders.
Full Coverage: Myanmar
Off the Wires
Gates slams Myanmar over response to aid offers AP, Sat May 31, 1:51 PM ET
Myanmar cyclone raises risk of forced labour: ILO AFP, Sat May 31, 1:44 PM ET
Can a cyclone open the iron fist of Myanmar's generals? at The Los Angeles Times, May 23
Will Burma keep its word on aid? at BBC, May 23
Gemunu Amarasinghe/Associated Press
Antiwar demonstrators pushed Buddhist monks from the stage of a peace rally Thursday in Colombo, Sri Lanka, where the government and Tamil rebels are fighting. The monks are against talks with the rebels (New York Times, circa 2006).
Sri Lanka soldiers capture rebel base
Bharatha Mallawarachi (AP News) May 30, 2008
Government troops on the Buddhist island have captured a Tamil Tiger rebel base in northern Sri Lanka after three days of fighting that killed seven rebels and one soldier, the military said Friday.
Army troops captured the stronghold known as Munnagam Base on Thursday, said military spokesman Brig. Udaya Nanayakkara. He said the base, located four miles north of the front lines in Welioya region, had been used by the guerrillas as an operational center.
He said the three-day battle to seize the base had killed seven rebels and one soldier. Five other soldiers were wounded.
Also Friday, air force jets bombed two rebel artillery positions in rebel-held northern Kilinochchi district, a military official said on condition of anonymity citing government rules. He did not give details of casualties or damage.
Other fighting Thursday in the Mannar and Vavuniya regions near the rebels' de facto state in the north killed four rebels and wounded eight soldiers, he said.
Rebel spokesman Rasiah Ilanthirayan could not immediately be reached for comment.
It was not possible to independently verify the military's claims because journalists are banned from the northern jungles where much of the fighting takes place. Each side commonly exaggerates its enemy's casualties while playing down its own.
Fighting has escalated in recent months along the war's front lines.
The Tamil Tiger rebels have fought since 1983 to create an independent state for ethnic minority Tamils who have suffered marginalization by successive governments controlled by ethnic Sinhalese. More than 70,000 people have been killed in the conflict.
Sharon Stone: Was China quake 'bad karma?'
May 28, 2008 LOS ANGELES (AP) — Sharon Stone's "karma" comment is having an instant effect on her movie-star status in China.
The 50-year-old actress suggested last week that the devastating May 12 earthquake in China could have been the result of bad karma over the government's treatment of Tibet. That prompted the founder of one of China's biggest cinema chains to say his company would not show her films in his theaters, according to a story in The Hollywood Reporter.
"I'm not happy about the way the Chinese are treating the Tibetans because I don't think anyone should be unkind to anyone else," Stone said Thursday during a Cannes Film Festival red-carpet interview with Hong Kong's Cable Entertainment News. "And then this earthquake and all this stuff happened, and then I thought, is that karma? When you're not nice that the bad things happen to you?"
Ng See-Yuen, founder of the UME Cineplex chain and the chairman of the Federation of Hong Kong Filmmakers, called Stone's comments "inappropriate," adding that actors should not bring personal politics to comments about a natural disaster that has left five million Chinese homeless, according to the Reporter.
UME has branches in Beijing, Shanghai, Chongqing, Hangzhou and Guangzhou, China's biggest urban movie markets.
During the brief interview, which has also surfaced on YouTube, Stone also said she cried when she received a letter from the Tibetan Foundation asking her to help quake victims.
"They wanted to go and be helpful, and that made me cry," she said. "It was a big lesson to me that sometimes you have to learn to put your head down and be of service even to people who aren't nice to you."
Stone's words created a swell of anger on the Internet, including at least one Chinese Web site devoted solely to disparaging her comments.
"To Sharon Stone's comment, it's unlikely that we will respond," said a woman who answered the phone at the Foreign Ministry in Beijing. She refused to give her name or position.
After-hours phone calls and email to a representative for Stone were not immediately returned Tuesday night.
According to the Web-based database imdb.com, Stone has at least four movies coming up between now and 2010, including "Streets of Blood," "Five Dollars a Day" and "The Year of Getting to Know Us."
Why do people care about some disasters yet ignore others?
Human Suffering: Why We Care (or Don't)
LiveScience.com Mon May 19, 2008
The dire situations in cyclone-battered Myanmar and quake-tossed southwestern China and the impulse of many to offer relief have a lot to do with human nature. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors likely did it, and non-human primates do it.
China mourns quake victims BBC
Dire conditions in Myanmar CNN
We are hard-wired to help others, to drop everything in crisis situations, scientists say.
"People do really respond in these crisis situations where it's really a short-term matter of life or death," said Daniel Kruger at the University of Michigan's School of Public Health. The motivation to give dates back to our hunter-gatherer ancestors, he said. Some non-human primates also have been shown to step in during a crisis to help their kin or even humans.
Myanmar is an acute case, with the death toll at nearly 78,000, though expected to surpass 100,000, and up to 2.5 million people considered severely affected. And major relief efforts have mounted since Cyclone Nargis struck on May 2. In China, millions of dollars are also pouring into Sichuan Province, where more than 34,000 are reported dead and 4.8 million were left homeless from the recent earthquake and its aftershocks.
Several factors make acute disasters like these different from other human hardships, including their short-term nature, widespread images that tug at our heart strings, and the high benefits relative to costs of helping.
But we don't help everybody in need and some people even look the other way. The Myanmar government is a famous example, accused by many aid experts of doing much less than they could to help their own residents, even thwarting aid shipments.
In the end, looking out for "number one," could be the underlying reason we choose to help, or choose not to help others, one scientist says.
Countries and aid organizations across the globe have contributed volunteers and funding to aid in Myanmar's recovery. The most recent United Nations estimates put total pledges at $80 billion with intended pledges of another $50-plus million. The money and efforts boil down to individuals deciding to give.
"I think the help is triggered by seeing victims, imagining oneself in the situation, so basic identification and empathy," said Frans de Waal, a psychologist at Emory University and the Yerkes Primate Center, where he studies the evolution of human behaviors through primate research.
He added, "I doubt that we would be willing to help if we didn't have images, didn't have anything to hang our human response system to, which is geared towards emotionally loaded images."
STORY: Research has shown that helping others, either through donating money or time, makes a person feel good.
"When disasters strike or emergencies occur, people are motivated to help for a variety of reasons, mostly they feel badly for the victims," said David Schroeder, a professor of psychology at the University of Arkansas. "In order to deal with that negative feeling they're experiencing, one way to alleviate that is to help that person out of that plight."
Costs and benefits
Though the decision to help tends to be rooted in our evolutionary history and driven by emotions, a weighing of costs and benefits takes place, though not consciously.
In the case of Myanmar, "it's sort of a critical situation and a little bit of help could mean the difference between life and death," Kruger told LiveScience. "People are in a great state of acute need, and someone who has the power to help them would be motivated to do so."
The situations in Myanmar and China are acute, as opposed to a place like Darfur, where the inhumane acts are ongoing.
"There's probably more people dying [in Darfur] over the course of a couple months than died in the earthquake in China," Kruger said, "but at the same time you're not seeing as much motivation among large sectors of the public."
To make any difference in Darfur, he said, a person would have to make a much longer-term commitment that could be quite taxing, physically and monetarily.
Whether those in need are close relatives or friends also plays into that calculation, Kruger said. For our hunter-gatherer ancestors, who foraged in groups of 150 individuals, their "in group" included individuals they didn't have close relations with.
"They didn't necessarily have working relationships with everyone in the community," Kruger said. "If there was some kind of great threat, it would make sense to help out to save the lives of those other folks in your community, because otherwise you'd be decimated," he said.
Why we don't help
Severe restrictions imposed by the military junta in Myanmar have hampered relief efforts there, according to news accounts and U.N. press statements.
"You have this military dictatorship and their vested interest is keeping themselves in power," Kruger said, "at the expense of anything else."
In a recent Associated Press article, Tim Costello, president of the aid agency World Vision-Australia, said, "A circle has been drawn around Yangon [Rangoon] and expats are confined there. While you are getting aid through, it's like getting it through a 3-inch pipe, not a 30-inch pipe."
Though the junta are barring foreign entrance to Myanmar at the expense of humans, they are not operating under a different set of "human nature" rules, some experts say.
"In terms of the junta, exactly the same motives are driving them," Schroeder said. "They're worried about 'what's going to be best for me.'" For the junta, the costs of letting in aid or sharing all their resources may outweigh the benefits of saving the people, Schroeder said in a telephone interview.
Even the power of empathy has its limits.
"Empathy is a capacity we use freely with those close to us, but can disappear when there are competing interests," de Waal said. "For example, if letting in aid organizations undermines one's power (as may be the case with a military dictatorship), the empathy may be suppressed or not emerge at all."
Video: How Wishful Thinking Affects Seeing
The Worst Natural Disasters Ever
Why the China Quake Was So Devastating
Original Story: Human Suffering: Why We Care (or Don't)
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Full Coverage: Myanmar
LINKS: Off the Wires
Myanmar opens door to help from Asian neighbors AP, 56 minutes ago
Southeast Asian neighbours to lead Myanmar cyclone relief effort AFP, 58 minutes ago
The Return of Burma's Monks Time.com via Yahoo! News, May 19
Negotiating aid politics in Burma at BBC, May 17
2 Weeks After Cyclone, Burmese Leader Pays First Visit to Refugees at The New York Times, May 19
Myanmar Agrees to Allow Aid Efforts by Neighbors at The New York Times, May 19
Opinion & Editorials
Myanmar's killing fields of neglect at Asia Times Online, May 17
Only war would provoke intervention in Burma at The Guardian (UK)., May 17
An Upside to the Relief Effort
Will Baxter / WpN for Newsweek
Is Help on the Way? Victims of Cyclone Nargis wait by a roadside in Burma for deliveries of relief supplies
NEWSWEEK May 26, 2008 Issue
They line the roads running south from Burma's former capital, Rangoon. Aid organizations call them "separated children" because so many don't know if their parents are alive or dead. They're waiting for food, water and other essentials, delivered by private groups operating without legal authority amid a brutal dictatorship. It's all surprisingly open: drivers pull over and hand out cargos of noodles and water as armed soldiers look on. Then the kids return to the churches, temples and schools that have become makeshift refugee camps in towns across the Irrawaddy Delta.
The storm that battered Burma on May 2 left as many as 128,000 people dead, according to the Red Cross, and orphaned children by the thousands. Two weeks on, the scene suggests a halfhearted official relief effort at best. The junta's strategy: keep it an internal affair—even if that triggers what the U.N. Office of Humanitarian Affairs calls "a second wave of deaths." To the paranoid men who run Burma, the tragedy unfolding in their heartland is an acceptable price to pay for not welcoming in large numbers of foreign experts. "They see the outside world as a bigger threat," says one Burmese intellectual who does not wish to be named.
Yet the generals' strategy implies a trade-off. Because government agencies have fallen so far short, various community networks, NGOs and religious groups are scrambling to fill the void. They're networking on the fly, moving food, medicine and other essentials into the flood zone, and often arriving to find survivors who still haven't received any official assistance. "They've established channels to work around the government and deliver aid directly to the villages," says Jasmin Lorch, visiting fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. These aide workers represent a ray of hope—for both cyclone victims and, longer term, for Burma's political development. Lorch, who did fieldwork in Burma from 2004 to 2007, found a nascent "civil society" consisting of community-based schools, orphanages run by Buddhist monks, homegrown Christian charities and several dozen registered NGO's.
Whether these groups can coalesce into a meaningful force after the crisis is unclear. If they continue to find common cause with local officials, win tolerance from top military leaders and assiduously cast themselves as apolitical and therefore nonthreatening, the social structures they've created could become permanent. "There is a potential for that dynamic," says John Virgoe, Southeast Asia project director for the International Crisis Group. "But because of the way the country has been [misgoverned] for so long, people are not accustomed to coming together." Given the junta's record of brutality, a benign outcome is anything but ensured. "Never forget," says a foreign expert familiar with the country's political dynamic, "that the Army stands ready to shoot its own people."
Myanmar says more than 133,000 dead, missing
Fri May 16, 2008
A map locating the United Nation's priority areas for relief aid in Myanmar. Myanmar said Friday more than 133,000 people were dead or missing in the cyclone disaster, nearly doubling the official toll two weeks after the storm left the country's rice-growing south in ruins (AFP/Graphic).
YANGON (AFP) - Myanmar said Friday more than 133,000 people were dead or missing in the cyclone disaster, nearly doubling the official toll two weeks after the storm left the country's rice-growing south in ruins.
The announcement came as Myanmar's military rulers, welcoming aid from abroad but suspicious of the outside world, again rejected calls to let foreign experts direct the massive relief effort for 2.5 million needy survivors.
State television put the latest toll at 77,738 dead and 55,917 missing -- numbers close to estimates by international aid groups in recent days as the full scope of the destruction in the Irrawaddy Delta becomes known.
The news bulletin said the government had not been able to confirm the increase earlier due to the widespread damage as well as subsequent heavy rains, which have deepened the misery in one of the world's poorest nations.
It said 19,359 people were injured. Among government personnel, there were 159 dead, 58 missing and four injured. No other details were given.
The junta has insisted it can manage the catastrophe alone, despite urgent international pleas to open up their doors and avert a second wave of death among desperate victims short of food, water, shelter and medical care.
But while the generals have accepted hundreds of tonnes of relief supplies -- from high-tech foodstuffs used in famine regions to the most basic needs like fresh water -- they have rebuffed foreign disaster management experts.
Instead, the secretive regime has all but sealed off the disaster zone, keeping out most foreigners and insisting that the country can rebuild on its own.
Louis Michel, the European Union's humanitarian aid commissioner, concluded a two-day visit on Friday but was unable to visit the delta -- a main rice-growing region in the country, formerly known as Burma.
But he said that more than 100 doctors from neighbouring countries would go into the country on Saturday, and stressed that time was running out to prepare for the October rice harvest in the country.
"Time is life," he said in Bangkok after the trip.
"Every possible pressure -- all rhetorical and diplomatic means -- must be used to get them to understand that they must help us help them," Michel said of the junta in an interview with AFP TV in neighbouring Thailand.
He had previously warned that the country, once a rich British colony, is at risk of famine after Cyclone Nargis, which hit May 2-3, wiped out vast swathes of paddies and destroyed rice stocks.
Meanwhile Western diplomats who declined to be named said the regime was taking them to the delta on Saturday, but had no further details about where they would be going.
"We're not expecting to be shown the real picture or be given any freedom to see what we'd like to see," one diplomat said.
The military, which has ruled Myanmar for nearly 50 years, keeps a tight rein on all aspects of life here -- and Michel said he had put a series of requests to authorities to ease the relief effort.
Among the requests, he said, was for local Burmese staff working for aid groups to be able to go back and forth freely into the disaster zone, rather than get individual permission from authorities.
"They are tempted to react positively to our requests," he said.
"But I feel also reluctance because the relationship between authorities and the international community (is) of course not very positive. So they are hesitant."
Myanmar's southeast Asian neighbours meanwhile were gearing up for talks in Singapore on Monday aimed at convening a high-level donors meeting.
A UN source said a donor meeting would likely take place in southeast Asia, probably Bangkok, with May 24 suggested as a possible date.
Rain deepens Myanmar misery; death toll spikes
By Aung Hla Tun 5/16/08
"Rice bowl" of Myanmar devastated by cyclone
YANGON (Reuters) - Torrential rain lashed victims of Cyclone Nargis on Friday as Myanmar's junta admitted more than 130,000 people were dead or missing, putting the disaster on a par with a 1991 cyclone that killed 143,000 in neighboring Bangladesh.
In a shock update to a death toll that had consistently lagged behind international aid agency estimates, state television in the army-ruled former Burma said 77,738 people were dead and another 55,917 missing.
The May 2 storm has left another 2.5 million people clinging to survival in the delta, where thousands of destitute victims are lining roadsides, begging for help in the absence of large-scale government or foreign relief operations.
In the storm-struck town of Kunyangon, around 100 km (60 miles) southwest of Yangon, men, women and children stood in the mud and rain, their hands clasped together in supplication to the occasional passing aid vehicle.
"The situation has worsened in just two days," one shocked aid volunteer said as crowds of children mobbed his vehicle, their grimy hands reaching through the window for scraps of bread or clothing.
Their desperate entreaties expose the fragility of the military government's claims to be on top of emergency aid distribution for victims of the cyclone, which flooded an area of delta the size of Austria.
Aid groups, including United Nations agencies, say only a fraction of the required food, water and emergency shelter materials is getting through, and unless the situation improves thousands more lives are at risk.
Given the junta's ban on foreign journalists and restrictions on the movement of most international aid workers, independent assessments of the situation are difficult.
EU ENVOY FAILS
The generals insist their relief operations are running smoothly, justifying their refusal to allow major aid distribution by outside agencies and workers.
They also issued an edict in state-run media saying legal action would be taken against anybody found hoarding or selling relief supplies, amid rumors of local military units expropriating trucks of food, blankets and water.
With international pressure and outrage at the generals' intransigence growing, the European Union's top aid official flew to Yangon to push for more access for foreign aid workers and relief operations before the death toll spikes even higher.
Like so many envoys before him, the EU's Louis Michel came away empty-handed but continued to urge the reclusive junta to shelve its pride and paranoia about the outside world and admit foreign help before it is too late.
"Time is life," he told reporters at Bangkok airport. "No government in the world can tackle such a problem alone. This is a major catastrophe."
Many cyclone refugees, crammed into monasteries, schools and other temporary shelters after the devastating storm, have already gone down with diarrhea, dysentery and skin infections.
In an ominous development, officials said one international health agency had confirmed cholera in the delta, although the number of cases was in line with normal levels at this time of year in a region where the disease is endemic.
"We don't have an explosion of cholera," World Health Organization (WHO) official Maureen Birmingham said in Bangkok.
Earlier, the reclusive generals, the latest face of 46 years of unbroken military rule, signaled they would not budge on their position of limiting foreign access to the delta, fearful that doing so might loosen their vice-like grip on power.
"We have already finished our first phase of emergency relief. We are going onto the second phase, the rebuilding stage," state television quoted Prime Minister Thein Sein as telling his Thai counterpart this week.
Underlining where its main attentions lie, the junta this week announced an overwhelming vote in favor of an army-backed constitution in a referendum held on May 10 despite calls for a delay in the light of the disaster.
Two weeks after the storm, food, medicine and temporary shelter are still only getting through in dribs and drabs.
Ordinary people were taking matters into their own hands, sending trucks into the delta with clothes, biscuits, dried noodles, and rice provided by private companies and individuals.
(Additional reporting by Ed Cropley and Darren Schuettler in BANGKOK; Writing by Ed Cropley; Editing by Giles Elgood)
(For more stories on Myanmar cyclone click on or follow the link to Reuters AlertNet http://www.alertnet.org)
Full Coverage: Myanmar
Off the Wires
Myanmar says more than 133,000 dead, missing in cyclone AFP, 49 minutes ago
Myanmar cyclone death toll nearly 78,000 AP, 1 hour, 11 minutes ago
Saving Burma Time.com via Yahoo! News, May 16
Local heroes step in to help cyclone victims AP via Yahoo! News, May 15
Myanmar: NGOs Fill In Where UN, U.S. Can't Go OneWorld.net via Yahoo! News, May 15
Burma's neighbors step in The Christian Science Monitor via Yahoo! News, May 15
Opinion & Editorials
Saved by China at The Washington Post, May 14
China and Burma: a seismic shift at The London Times, May 13
US official: 1 shipment to be allowed to Myanmar
By FOSTER KLUG, Associated Press, Friday, May 9, 2008
WASHINGTON - The governing military junta in Myanmar has agreed to allow a single U.S. cargo aircraft to bring in relief supplies for victims of a devastating cyclone, the Bush administration said Friday.
White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said the United States welcomed the go-ahead to land a U.S. military C-130 in the country on Monday. He said he hopes this is the beginning of continued aid flowing into Myanmar from the United States, other nations and international relief agencies.
Earlier Friday, Ky Luu, director of the U.S. office of foreign disaster assistance, had said that skilled aid workers were being forced to sit on the sidelines as victims of last week's cyclone were dying. His comments reflect mounting frustration among the United States and other countries as they wait for permission from the military-led government to begin trying to help.
Said Johndroe: "We will continue to work with the government of Burma to allow other assistance. We hope that this is the beginning of a long line of assistance from the United States to Burma." Myanmar is also known as Burma.
Johndroe also said that while the U.S. still has limited leeway to help, "One flight is much better than no flights."
"They're going to need our help for a long time," Johndroe said. He spoke in Crawford, Texas, where President Bush's daughter, Jenna, will be wed on Saturday.
The breakthrough came after days of waiting on the U.S. side. It is not yet known what supplies will be included. U.S. aircraft have been positioned in Thailand and elsewhere nearby waiting for permission to transport supplies to the cyclone-devastated country.
The U.S. military has C-130 cargo aircraft and about a dozen helicopters in the region, ready to fly supplies into Myanmar. Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said Friday that the aircraft could reach Myanmar in a few hours.
In addition, U.S. Navy ships have begun moving from the Gulf of Thailand toward Myanmar to be available if needed.
Johndroe said he could not speak to one specific cause for the breakthrough, but added: "Clearly the junta has determined that the magnitude of this disaster requires additional assistance."
Myanmar has been under military rule since 1962. The current junta came to power after snuffing out a 1988 pro-democracy movement against the previous military dictatorship, killing at least 3,000 people in the process. The junta also violently crushed protests last year.
Luu had urged the generals to allow access to foreign aid teams, including a group of U.S. specialists waiting in Thailand; he said desperately needed supplies are piling up on airport tarmacs.
"This is a very vulnerable population, and a shock of this magnitude is going to take people right off the cliff," Luu told an audience at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a foreign affairs think tank in Washington.
He said the message to the junta is clear: If it allows U.S. officials in, "we will be able to make a difference."
"People are dying, and it's approaching a week," he said.
Myanmar's ruling military junta earlier seized two planeloads of critical aid sent by the U.N. The U.N. food program suspended help after the action, but later said it is sending two planes to Myanmar to help hungry and homeless survivors.
Officials have said that up to 1.9 million people are homeless, injured or threatened by disease and hunger, and only one out of 10 have received some kind of aid in the six days since the cyclone hit.
Tony Banbury, Asia director for the U.N. World Food Program, said by satellite from Thailand that the "big issue" is: What are the Myanmar authorities going to do? The WFP, he said, will keep working, but "I don't think we have much leverage with the authorities."
"Our hands are getting more and more tied," he said. "The situation is obviously desperate."
Sein Win, an exiled leader of Myanmar's opposition, said in an interview that the United States and other nations must more strongly pressure China, which is seen as having significant economic and political influence with Myanmar's generals.
"The world is not telling China to do what they should do ... to save people," Win said. He added that China has leverage over Myanmar, and said "the question is whether they are going to use it or not."
Myanmar cyclone toll may top 100,000
Myanmar's military government raised its death toll from Cyclone Nargis on Tuesday to nearly 22,500 with a further 41,000 missing, nearly all of them from a massive storm surge that swept into the Irrawaddy delta. (Graphics/Reuters)
By Aung Hla Tun May 7, 2008
YANGON (Reuters) - Myanmar's military government came under pressure on Wednesday to open its borders to international help after a devastating cyclone that a U.S. diplomat said may have killed more than 100,000 people.
The top U.N. humanitarian official urged Myanmar to waive visa restrictions for aid workers and customs clearance for goods which he said were slowing efforts to bring in disaster relief experts and supplies to help an estimated 1 million people affected by Cyclone Nargis.
State Myanmar radio and television, the main official sources for casualties, reported an updated death toll of 22,980 with 42,119 missing and 1,383 injured in Asia's most devastating cyclone since a 1991 storm in Bangladesh that killed 143,000.
A U.S. diplomat in Myanmar said diplomats there were receiving information that there could have been more than 100,000 deaths from the cyclone that smashed into coastal towns and villages in the rice-growing Irrawaddy delta southwest of Yangon.
"The information that we're receiving indicates that there may well be over 100,000 deaths in the delta area," Shari Villarosa, the charge d'affaires of the U.S. embassy in Myanmar, told reporters on a conference call from Yangon.
Villarosa said that the 100,000 figure was not a confirmed death toll but was based on estimates provided by an international non-governmental organization. She declined to identify the organization.
She said recent estimates by the Myanmar government put the death toll at 70,000 deaths, primarily in the delta area.
'RESPONSIBILITY TO PROTECT'
With the inundated delta region virtually cut off and frustration growing among aid agencies and governments to deliver supplies, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner suggested invoking a U.N. "responsibility to protect" clause without waiting for military approval.
John Holmes, U.N. undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs, said that would be premature as discussions with the government, though slow, were moving forward.
"We are having useful and constructive discussions with the authorities of Myanmar," Holmes told reporters at the United Nations.
"It is moving in the right direction, we want it to move much faster clearly, but I'm not sure it would help at this moment at least to embark on what could at least be seen by some people as a confrontation."
Richard Horsey of the United Nations Office of the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said 5,000 square km (1,930 square miles) of the delta were under water.
"With all those dead mostly floating in the water at this point you can get some idea of the conditions facing the teams on the ground. It's a major logistical challenge," Horsey told Reuters in Bangkok.
Thailand, China, India and Indonesia were flying in relief supplies and the United States and Australia appealed to Myanmar's ruling military to accept their assistance.
Even relief workers of the United Nations, which has a presence in the diplomatically isolated Southeast Asian country, were awaiting visas five days after Cyclone Nargis struck with 190 km (120 mph) winds.
Holmes said four Asian U.N. officials who do not need visas because of their nationality had received clearance to go in as part of an initial assessment team but as many as 100 U.N. staff of various agencies were still waiting. He said they had not been refused visas, but the process was taking too long.
Holmes urged Myanmar to waive visa requirements and customs clearance for aid supplies, noting that similar waivers were granted by Pakistan and Iran after earthquakes there.
Political analysts and critics of 46 years of military rule say the cyclone may have long-term implications for the junta, which is even more feared and resented since last September's bloody crackdown on Buddhist monk-led protests.
Water purification tablets, plastic sheeting, basic medical kits, bed nets and food were priorities, U.N. officials said.
Holmes said 24 countries had already pledged $30 million and he expected much more to be offered after the U.N. sets out its priorities and target for aid in a flash appeal on Friday. He said the U.N. emergency relief would also contribute at least $10 million.
At Yangon airport, a Reuters photographer on a Thai military plane said two Indian and one Chinese transport plane with tents and construction materials had also landed.
Debris and fallen trees at the airport had been cleared, but paddy fields around the city were still flooded.
Indonesia, hard-hit by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, said it was giving $1 million in cash and sending two planes to Myanmar on Thursday with blankets, baby food and medicine.
The military junta's own aid operation has moved up a gear with some helicopter drops into the region, but land convoys were nowhere to be seen, a Reuters witness in the delta said.
One doctor in the town of Labutta told Australian radio that people clung to trees in a desperate fight for survival. Entire villages were virtually destroyed, reports from the delta said.
"All the victims were brought to the town and I asked them, 'How many of you survived?' and they said about 200, 300," Aye Kyu told Australian Broadcasting Corporation radio. "Then I asked them, 'How many people in your area?' They said about 5,000."
In one town alone, Bogalay, at least 10,000 people were killed, according to a town-by-town list of casualties and damage announced by the reclusive military government.
FRENCH PROPOSAL REBUFFED
The United Nations recognized in 2005 the concept of "responsibility to protect" civilians when their governments could or would not do it, even if this meant intervention that violated national sovereignty.
France's U.N. Ambassador Jean-Maurice Ripert asked the Security Council on Wednesday to take a stand on the crisis by calling for a humanitarian briefing and issuing a statement. He said two or three countries had blocked that on procedural grounds, saying that it was not a security matter.
"We think it's time for the Security Council to express its concern ... to exhort, to ask, to call on the government of Myanmar to open its border," Ripert told reporters, adding that France and others were ready to help but were being rebuffed.
(Additional reporting by Darren Schuettler and Sukree Sukplang in Bangkok and Michael Perry in Sydney; Louis Charbonneau and Claudia Parsons at the United Nations; Writing by Claudia Parsons; Editing by Bill Tarrant and Frances Kerry)
Myanmar survivors emerge desperate for help
Wed May 7, 2008
LABUTTA, Myanmar (AFP) - Thousands of shell-shocked survivors of the Myanmar cyclone emerged Wednesday, desperate for food and water after trekking for days through flood waters littered with the bodies of the dead.
An AFP reporter who reached the remote southern delta hardest hit by the storm, which left more than 60,000 dead or missing, said there was virtually no food or fresh water in this ruined town blanketed by the stench of death.
The grim accounts of survivors came as the United Nations said the country's reclusive military rulers, under pressure to let in foreign aid workers , had approved an emergency flight five days after the tragedy.
"They have lost their families, they have nowhere to stay and they have nothing to eat," one witness said in the town of Labutta after Cyclone Nargis washed away entire villages in one of the world's poorest nations.
Another said: "We can't sleep at night, because we can hear people shouting at night. Maybe these are the ghosts of the villagers."
Those who had the strength to do so spent days picking through murky water strewn with the festering and bloated dead, desperate for shelter, food, water and medical care after one of the world's worst natural disasters.
Witnesses said Saturday's storm, packing winds of 190 kilometres (120 miles) per hour, had left the region submerged under six-metre (20-foot) waters higher than the tree-tops -- and countless corpses rotting in the tropical heat.
After days of criticism aimed at the secretive generals who have ruled the former Burma for nearly half a century -- and who have hesitated to let in foreign relief workers -- the United Nations said experts were on the way.
"We hope that this spirit of openness will continue," said spokeswoman Elisabeth Byrs in Switzerland, announcing that a plane with 25 tonnes of aid was en route from Italy with UN disaster relief experts on board.
The news was a welcome development for international aid agencies who had bitterly complained that time was running out for the millions facing the risk of disease and starvation.
Pledges of cash, supplies and assistance have been pouring in from around the world but the junta -- wary of any foreign influence that could weaken their tenacious control -- have kept foreigners away.
The army, best known internationally for its long detention of democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi, had insisted that experts well versed in coping with catastrophes around the globe would not be automatically allowed in.
But after days of criticism of a government that declined help from abroad after the 2004 Asian tsunami, and bitter complaints that time was running out for those still alive, it was unclear if aid would be quick enough.
Residents told AFP that the regime -- which tightly controls all media and stifles the merest whiff of dissent -- had not yet set up emergency shelters here, and that even a government rescue ship ran out of fuel and was stranded.
"We need emergency rescuers," said a local doctor, who warned many here were suffering from diarrhoea because of the miserable sanitary conditions.
"Assistance hasn't reached them yet and they are dying," said Andrew Kirkwood of Save the Children, one of the few aid agencies allowed to operate inside Myanmar.
"And clearly there are millions of homeless ," he said. "But how many millions, we don't know."
Some relief supplies have been trickling in. The second transport plane from Thailand in two days landed on Wednesday, and aid groups have been distributing supplies they already had in the country.
People took to the streets themselves, assisted by Buddhist monks as they chopped away with knives and axes at uprooted trees that have blocked roads, and worked to move chunks of rooftops torn off buildings.
"We were hoping the authorities would come, but they haven't shown up yet," said one woman in Yangon, speaking on condition of anonymity because she feared reprisal from the government.
The Cyclone’s Wake, Seen in Taxi Headlights
By Anahad O'Connor
May 6, 2008, New York Times
Burmese soldiers cleared fallen trees from a road in Myanmar’s sprawling main city, Yangon, on Monday. (Heinrich Schoeneich/EPA)
As the death toll from the cyclone that swept across Myanmar over the weekend continues to soar — the latest estimate is 22,500 dead and more than 40,000 still missing, according to some government officials — humanitarian aid and crisis workers are facing a serious obstacle: How to reach the country’s hardest hit areas, which are often also its most remote.
Even before the cyclone hit, many places in the vast Irrawaddy delta along the coast were reachable only by boat or helicopter, and now it appears that a combination of the military government’s reluctance and the storm damage to the country’s already weak infrastructure is making it even harder to get aid to many of those in need. The Irrawaddy delta is a swampy, densely populated rice-growing area that is now so difficult for outsiders to reach that few journalists have managed to get in, never mind aid convoys.
Even with power, water and communications knocked out in many parts of the country, though, some firsthand accounts of the cyclone’s hellish impact are getting out to the wider world. A few Westerners who said they were working or traveling in the country when the cyclone hi have sent e-mail messages to The New York Times describing scenes of heartbreaking devastation: Entire villages reduced to mud and rubble, and towns that were once busy and pulsating with life turned into wastelands.
One traveler is Henry Webb, who identified himself as a lawyer from the United States who teaches business law in Vietnam and who began a trip to Myanmar on April 26. On Sunday night, he shared a taxi with a couple from Spain as they tried to make their way from a lightly-hit area in the provinces to the international airport in Yangon, the country’s largest city, he said in a lengthy message that reached The Lede early Tuesday. Here is what they saw:
About 3 a.m., when we were about 40 or 50 miles outside of Yangon, we started seeing the first trees and signs that had been blown down. (I did not sleep during the taxi ride — the Spanish couple slept off and on and I was afraid that if I went to sleep the driver might fall asleep as well — despite the fact that he was chugging Red Bull and coffee throughout the night.)
It took about two hours to cover those remaining 40 or 50 miles to the airport, and it was only in those last two hours — between 3 a.m. and 5 a.m. — that we began to appreciate the amount of devastation wrought by the cyclone. There were long stretches where nearly every tree along both sides of the road had been blown down, split into, uprooted, etc.
Almost all of the billboards were shredded, and most other signs had been either torn apart or blown down, and I saw several street signs — like stop signs or yield signs (the writing was in Burmese script so I don’t know what they actually said) — that had literally had their metal poles bent in half by the force of the winds. Many streetlights were also blown down. Many of the buildings had been damaged, and there was wind-blown debris everywhere.
One thing that amazed me was that there were no trees or power lines actually blocking the road anywhere along our route. I read later that the military had been mobilized to clear the roads – and we could see many trees where the trunk or limbs had been freshly cut into to remove them from the road, but there were no obstructions blocking the road. Some fallen trees and streetlights stuck out into the road, but we were never blocked completely. I was very surprised that they had been able to completely clear that long of a stretch of road that quickly.
There were very few other vehicles on the road as we got close to Yangon, and it was a very surreal experience to be creeping along through that devastation in our little taxi, the magnitude of the damage only becoming apparent to us as it was illuminated by our headlights. We were mostly silent and open-mouthed — I think we were too shocked to really say much. Every now and then one of us would say something to the effect of “This is very bad,” or “These poor people.”
Another description came in an e-mail message that was apparently sent on Monday by Carsten Schmidt, a travel agent living in Yangon, to overseas customers of his agency, one of whom forwarded it to The Lede this morning:
The streets of Yangon look disastrous! On Saturday, there was almost no transportation, due to collapsed trees all over the city that were or have been blocking the streets. Huge advertisement signs and power masts fell down, roofs were blown away, windows smashed and entire houses and cottages were damaged by trees.
Moreover, neither taxis nor buses were driving, and people were stuck at home, being busy anyway with repairing their homes. All flights were canceled and planes from Bangkok turned on their way to Yangon and flew back to Bangkok.
So far, civilians, soldiers and even monks are trying to clear the roads step by step, partly with even simplest tools. We expect all major roads to be cleared by today, so that traffic starts floating more or less normally.
Myanmar was not a very transparent country before the storm ravaged its infrastructure, and it would seem to be even less so now. One of the leading Web sites closely following developments in Myanmar is Mizzima News, which was set up by Burmese journalists in exile in 1998 and relies on dispatches from university students in the country.
The site has posted an interview with a woman who fled to a church in Yangon with her husband and three children after their home was leveled by the cyclone. Huddled together with about 80 other people taking shelter in the church, the family is subsisting primarily on boiled rice, she said, and has nowhere else to go:
An uprooted tree fell on our home. It was totally destroyed and could not be repaired. Even the posts of my home fell down. My youngest child is only 10 months old and my husband is paralyzed. We can do nothing now and face a bleak future. We have nothing to eat for tomorrow.
(After drafting most of this post, The Lede found that Mizzima News’s Internet server had stopped responding. It was not clear why.)
Almost 4,000 die in cyclone in Myanmar; Toll could hit 10,000 (May 5, 2008)
YANGON, Myanmar - Almost 4,000 people were killed and nearly 3,000 others are unaccounted for after a devastating cyclone in Myanmar, a state radio station said Monday.
Foreign Minister Nyan Win told foreign diplomats at a briefing that the death toll could rise to more than 10,000, according to diplomats who spoke on condition of anonymity because the meeting was held behind closed doors.
Tropical Cyclone Nargis hit the Southeast Asian country, also known as Burma, early Saturday with winds of up to 120 mph, leaving hundreds of thousands of people homeless.
Myanmar's ruling junta, which has spurned the international community for decades, appealed for aid on Monday. But the U.S. State Department said Myanmar's government had not granted permission for a Disaster Assistance Response Team into the country.
Laura Blank, spokeswoman for World Vision, said two assessment teams have been sent to the hardest hit areas to determine the most urgent needs.
"This is probably the most devastating natural disaster in Southeast Asia since the tsunami," Blank said, referring to the 2004 disaster that killed around 230,000 people in 12 Indian Ocean nations. "There are a lot of important needs, but the most important is clean water."
Myanmar's government had previously put the death toll countrywide at 351 before increasing it Monday to 3,939.
The radio station broadcasting from the country's capital, Naypyitaw, said that 2,879 more people are unaccounted for in a single town, Bogalay, in the country's low-lying Irrawaddy River delta area where the storm wreaked the most havoc.
"Our staff has heard that in eight townships, over 95 percent of the land has been severely affected," Pamela Sitko, World Vision's communication relief manager for the Asia-Pacific region, told The Associated Press from Bangkok.
The situation in the countryside remained unclear because of poor communications and roads left impassable by the storm.
"Widespread destruction is obviously making it more difficult to get aid to people who need it most," said Michael Annear, regional disaster management coordinator for the International Federation of the Red Cross in Bangkok.
At a Monday meeting with foreign diplomats and representatives of U.N. and international aid agencies, Myanmar's foreign ministry officials said they welcomed international humanitarian assistance and urgently need roofing materials, plastic sheets and temporary tents, medicine, water purifying tablets, blankets and mosquito nets.
In Washington, the State Department said the U.S. Embassy in Yangon had authorized an emergency contribution of $250,000 to help with relief efforts.
"We have a DART team that is standing by and ready to go into Burma to help try to assess needs there," deputy spokesman Tom Casey told reporters. "As of this moment, the Burmese government has not given them permission, however, to go into the country so that is a barrier to us being able to move forward."
Myanmar Red volunteers already were distributing some basic items, said Matthew Cochrane at the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies' Geneva headquarters.
The World Food Program has pre-positioned 500 tons of food in Yangon and plans to bring in more relief supplies, said Elisabeth Byrs, spokeswoman for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
U.N. agencies were working with the Red Cross and other organizations to see how it can help those affected by the cyclone. UNICEF spokeswoman Veronique Taveau said the U.N. children's agency alone has five teams assessing the situation in the country.
The cyclone blew roofs off hospitals and schools and cut electricity in Myanmar's largest city, Yangon. Older citizens said they had never seen the city of some 6.5 million so devastated in their lifetimes.
With the city's already unstable electricity supply virtually nonfunctional, citizens lined up to buy candles, which doubled in price, and water since lack of electricity-driven pumps left most households dry. Some walked to the city's lakes to wash.
Hotels and richer families were using private generators but only sparingly, given the soaring price of fuel.
Many stayed away from their jobs, either because they could not find transportation or because they had to seek food and shelter for their families.
"Without my daily earning, just survival has become a big problem for us," said Tin Hla, who normally repairs umbrellas at a roadside stand.
With his home destroyed by the storm, Tin Hla said he has had to place his family of five into one of the monasteries that have offered temporary shelter to those left homeless.
His entire morning was taken up with looking for water and some food to buy, ending up with three chicken eggs that cost double the normal price.
Despite the havoc wreaked by the cyclone across wide swaths of the country, the government indicated that a referendum on the country's draft constitution would proceed as planned on May 10.
"It's only a few days left before the coming referendum and people are eager to cast their vote," the state-owned newspaper Myanma Ahlin said Monday.
At the meeting with diplomats, Relief Minister Maj. Gen. Maung Maung Swe said the vote could be postponed by "a few days" in the worst-affected areas. However, the foreign minister intervened to say the matter would be decided by the official referendum commission.
Pro-democracy groups in the country and many international critics have branded the proposed constitution as merely a tool for the military's continued grip on power.
Should the junta be seen as failing disaster victims, voters who already blame the regime for ruining the economy and crushing democracy could take out their frustrations at the ballot box.
Associated Press writers Carley Petesch in New York and Alexander G. Higgins and Eliane Engeler in Geneva contributed to this report.
A small step: More talks ahead for China, Dalai Lama envoys
By WILLIAM FOREMAN, Associated Press Writer (May 5, 2008)
SHENZHEN, China - The Dalai Lama's representatives left China on Monday with a solid offer from Beijing for future talks, marking a small step toward expanding dialogue between the two sides following anti-government riots in Tibet.
Prime Minister Samdhong Rinpoche of the India-based Tibetan government-in-exile said the two sides had agreed to meet again following daylong discussions conducted in a "good atmosphere" Sunday in the southern city of Shenzhen.
"Like we said before, we're not expecting much outcome from these talks but this is a slow process and we are happy to continue the dialogue," he told reporters in Dharmsala, India, adding that details on future meetings will come later.
Both China's state broadcaster and the official Xinhua News Agency confirmed a second round of talks had been agreed on. Xinhua said, however, that Chinese officials told the Dalai Lama's envoys that recent protests had created new obstacles to communication.
International critics have accused China of heavy-handed tactics in quelling anti-government riots and protests in Tibet and Tibetan areas of western China that began in March. Some experts believe Beijing agreed to meet with the envoys to ease that criticism ahead of the Beijing Olympics in August.
Still, it is the first time the two sides have sat down together since talks broke down in 2006 after six rounds. Despite China's vilification of the Dalai Lama, both sides have kept back channels for dialogue open.
The Dalai Lama, the Buddhist spiritual leader who fled Tibet in 1959 amid a Chinese crackdown, has previously said he wants some form of autonomy that would allow Tibetans to freely practice their culture, language and religion.
Speaking from Brussels, Belgium, on Monday, Kesang Yangkyi Takla, foreign minister for the Tibetan government-in-exile, said the weekend meeting primarily focused on ways to improve conditions in Tibet.
"We feel that until and unless the current crisis ... in Tibet improves, it is difficult to start negotiations. This is where we are focusing at the moment," she said. "We hope that the government in China will consider this and give a concrete reply so that things improve in Tibet."
Xinhua reported that Chinese officials "answered patiently" questions raised by the Dalai Lama's envoys. However, the Chinese side told the envoys that the March 14 riots "had given rise to new obstacles for resuming contacts and consultations with the Dalai side," Xinhua said.
But even as the closed-door talks took place, China kept up its verbal assault on the Dalai Lama, whom Beijing has blamed for fomenting the latest unrest. The Tibetan leader has repeatedly denied the accusation.
"The central government hoped that to create conditions for the next round of contact and consultation, the Dalai side would take credible moves to stop activities aimed at splitting China, stop plotting and inciting violence and stop disrupting and sabotaging the Beijing Olympic Games," Xinhua said on Monday.
China also brought out the young man appointed by Beijing as the reincarnation of the...
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