/ 24 May 2008

Cyclone increases army looting on Burma borders

Cyclone damage to the Irrawaddy Delta, Myanmar’s rice bowl, has caused a surge in looting in its restive border areas by poorly paid troops worried about food shortages, residents and human rights groups say.

In the north-west town of Kalaymo, which is reliant on the faraway delta for much of its rice and salt, residents said soldiers had stepped up seizures of rice, fish and firewood since Cyclone Nargis hit Burma on May 2.

In the evenings, soldiers were stopping villagers at checkpoints on their way back from the market and taking their cash, often out of fear their pay will be diverted to the cyclone-hit areas, victims and eyewitnesses said.

”The situation has turned worse after the cyclone,” Se, a former transport department officer, told Reuters in the town of 300 000 people about six hours’ drive from the Indian border.

”Even the army supplies are restricted and they are not sure when they will receive their salaries,” he said.

Soldiers in army-ruled Burma are poorly paid — a private earns just 14 000 kyats ($12) a month — making extortion an endemic problem, especially in the border areas where various ethnic militias have waged guerrilla war for decades.

But around a dozen people interviewed in the town said the situation had become much worse in the three weeks since Nargis, which left 134 000 people dead or missing in the delta and another 2,4-million in dire need of aid.

”The military has no sympathy for the people,” said one government clerk who did not want to be named. ”They have no emotion or human feelings. They behave like animals.”

Next month’s arrival of the monsoon rains, which makes the jungle-clad mountainous region’s dirt roads impassable, is adding to fears about a shortage of staples such as rice, salt and edible oils, causing ordinary people to stock up.

Soldiers have put up check points on roads and are charging vehicles up to 100 000 kyats to pass.

”There is complete lawlessness here. Whatever the army says is the law,” another Kalaymo resident said.

Security personnel are everywhere in the town, armed with automatic rifles and walkie-talkies.

”These are the people responsible for food shortages and price rises here,” said a leader of the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD), who asked not to be named.

”Military officers are not concerned about people’s welfare and they have no knowledge of civil administration. They only how to squeeze civilians.”

Debbie Stothard of Bangkok-based human rights group ALTSEAN said she had heard similar reports from eastern Shan state of military units seizing food and supplies since the cyclone.

”They’ve started grabbing food for themselves because they are scared there will not be enough food left,” Stothard said. ”It’s about them wanting to make sure they have enough supplies.”

In Kalaymo, soldiers were even demanding bribes to allow food and clothes donated for cyclone victims be taken to a Buddhist monastery for distribution, residents said.

”Senior generals have lost control over these units,” said one businessman selling Chinese-made electronics. ”They are operating independent of the central command.” – Reuters