Myanmar Forcing Cyclone Victims Into Menial Labor For Food : Amnesty International

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YANGON, Myanmar — Myanmar's military junta has detained a popular comedian who had just returned from an aid trip to the cyclone-ravaged delta, a region where a human rights group said Thursday that the regime is forcing survivors to do menial labor for food.

Maung Thura _ whose stage name is Zarganar _ was taken from his home in Yangon by police after going to the Irrawaddy delta to donate relief items to survivors, his family said.

In a report, Amnesty International cited several cases of forced labor in exchange for food in the delta, and accused the regime of stepping up a campaign to evict the homeless from shelters.

The London-based 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," Amnesty said in its report. "Respect for human rights must be at the center of the relief effort."

Zarganar, 46, known both for his anti-government barbs and his work for cyclone victims, was taken into custody Wednesday night after police searched his house.

An Amnesty representative said Zarganar's detention was indicative of the kinds of human rights concerns that the group was trying to highlight.

"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 researcher Benjamin Zawacki said.

The government says Cyclone Nargis, which struck Myanmar May 2-3, killed 78,000 people and left an additional 56,000 missing. The U.N. says more than 1 million 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.

The junta is sensitive to being embarrassed abroad, and has a record of persecuting people who give interviews to foreign media.

In an interview with the Thailand-based magazine Irrawaddy, Zarganar said he and more than 400 entertainers in Myanmar had volunteered to aid cyclone victims, making many trips to the delta.

Some areas, he said, had neither been reached by the government nor international relief agencies. Zarganar and his group distributed food, blankets, mosquito nets and other aid.

Zarganar said his group sometimes had "confrontations with authorities" in the delta.

Earlier, other Myanmar entertainers had complained that authorities want all aid to be distributed through official channels rather than by private individuals and groups.

The regime also continues to impose constraints on international rescue efforts as well, aid agencies say.

U.S. Navy ships laden with relief supplies moved away from Myanmar's coast Thursday, their helicopters barred by the junta from ferrying clean water and other supplies to survivors.

The four ships, 22 helicopters and 5,000 U.S. military personnel had been off the coast for more than three weeks hoping for a green light to deliver aid.

Restrictions on entry of foreign workers and on some equipment continue to hamper the effort, despite a pledge by junta leader Senior Gen. Than Shwe to allow access.

Zarganar, who works as a dentist to pay the bills, was first arrested in 1988 for his political activities and again for helping his mother _ a member of the National League for Democracy _ during her campaign for the 1990 general elections.

The party, led by detained Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, swept those elections, but the regime refused to yield power.

Last September, Zarganar was arrested and held for three weeks for providing food to Buddhist monks who spearheaded anti-government protests in Yangon.

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