- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 31, 2008

RANGOON, Burma (AP) - Burma’s military government is forcing cyclone victims out of shelters and refugee camps and sending some back to their devastated villages with virtually no aid supplies, United Nations and church officials said yesterday.

Eight camps set up by the government for homeless victims in the Irrawaddy River Delta town of Bogalay are “totally empty,” UNICEF official Teh Tai Ring told a meeting of aid groups.

“The government is moving people unannounced,” he said, adding that authorities were “dumping people in the approximate location of the villages, basically with nothing.”

UNICEF said the information was based on “unconfirmed reports by relief workers.” Teh Tai Ring said the information was from a relief worker who had just returned from the affected area.

Meanwhile, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said at a conference in Singapore today Burma’s obstruction of international efforts to help cyclone victims cost “tens of thousands of lives.”

With U.S. ships off the coast of Burma poised to leave because they have been blocked from delivering assistance to the ravaged country, Mr. Gates said the U.S. will continue to try to get aid in. In a speech to the annual Shangri-La conference on international security, he said the United States has not had problems helping other countries in natural disasters while still respecting their sovereignty.

With Burma, he said, “the situation has been very different - at a cost of tens of thousands of lives. Many other countries besides the United States also have felt hindered in their efforts.”

More than 400 cyclone victims from the delta town of Labutta were evicted from a church in Rangoon following orders from authorities Thursday, a church official said.

“It was a scene of sadness, despair and pain,” said the official at the Rangoon Karen Baptist Home Missions, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of official reprisal. “Those villagers lost their homes, their family members and the whole village was washed away. They have no home to go back to.”

The government’s reasons for moving people out of camps and shelters has not been made publicly clear, but it earlier declared that the relief phase of the rescue effort had been concluded and it was now time for reconstruction. Foreign aid experts disagree, arguing that many people are still in need of emergency assistance for food and shelter, as well as medical care.

In Geneva, the International Labor Organization warned yesterday there was an increased risk that Burma’s ruling military may try to use forced labor - including children - to rebuild the country, Reuters news agency reported.

An estimated 2.4 million people remain homeless and hungry after the May 2-3 cyclone hit Burma, officially known as Myanmar. The government says the cyclone killed 78,000 people, and lists 56,000 as missing.

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