05/19/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Local Corruption Hampering Burma Recovery Efforts

In the midst of a massive humanitarian crisis in Burma in which 1.5 million people are at risk of dying from disease, local government officials in Rangoon have been selling aid and bribing residents in order to turn a profit, according to sources in Rangoon. It has been eight days since Cyclone Nargis wiped out entire villages along the Irrawaddy delta and left Rangoon in shambles, but the ruling junta has prevented relief efforts from barely making a dent in the recovery process.

Government officials have stolen donations of rice, cooking oil and diesel and sold them on the black market, a businessman in Rangoon said on Sunday. In several townships around the major city, the government announced that it would provide a certain amount of rice and cooking oil to each household, but local township officers were found refusing families their quotas and instead selling the goods on the black market.

"Most community heads and their staffs are doing good biz in leading distribution of aids, like petrol, oil with cheap price/ but they store a lot/ they steal a lot," the businessman wrote.
The businessman, whose 15-month old baby has a case of diarrhea due to lack of clean drinking water, said the officers denied his family its quota as well.

He sent his information to a contact in Thailand via Google Chat because the junta can censor email from the government-service providers and from Gmail. Even natural disasters are politically sensitive in Burma, and the junta has sent Burmese to prison in the past for giving information to the international press.

Rangoon residents have also found packages of salt from Thailand in markets and have assumed that foreign countries intended to give out the supplies freely as aid. "We are not sure but feeling bad because we know things like that happens all our life," said a humanitarian worker who lives in Rangoon. "Drugs from UNICEF [were available to] buy from the market when we were young."

This cannot be verified, though it reveals the people's lack of trust in government officials to forgo personal profit for the sake of helping survivors of a natural disaster.

The Burmese government, which rules the country with an iron fist, has also used the cyclone as an opportunity to improve it own propaganda machine. The junta, which has forbid foreign governments from distributing aid directly, has also prevented residents from donating directly to survivors, according to the woman who works for a humanitarian organization. Residents must donate to a government-backed group, called the Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA), which then distributes the aid as if it came from them.

"There were some people coming to the rescue tent and distribute rice," she wrote in an email.

"The local authority stopped them and asked to distribute through them and the donors left."
The junta controls all media inside the country, and state television has shown image after image of soldiers giving out aid to victims.

Despite the utter poverty in Rangoon and inability of most survivors to afford basics like food and shelter, local authorities in some townships have also started collecting 5000 Kyats from each household to give to the ministry of electrical power, according to the businessman. He said families on his street were forced to collect all of the money, about 1,000,000 Kyats, and give it to the electric department in order to have their street's electricity repaired. The cyclone wiped out most electricity in the city.

Electricity is critical in Rangoon because most homes rely on it to pump water into a private tank. If there is no electricity, people cannot access clean water and are at risk of disease.

People in Rangoon have expressed outrage and disbelief at the junta's decision to manipulate the situation for its own gain as well as for its focus on Saturday's referendum on a draft constitution instead of the relief process, its inability to clean up the city and provide needed services, and its refusal to allow foreign aid workers into the country.

However, the humanitarian worker also said some people in Rangoon believe the government propaganda and think that the disaster is not severe and that the government is doing its best to help the people.

She wrote via Google Chat: "Ppl r dying n some ppl still think situation is not bad."