Burma junta 'worse than cyclone Nargis'

Jan 22, 2010 (DVB), Human rights violations by the ruling junta in Burma have caused more damage than cyclone Nargis, which struck in 2008 and left 140,000 people dead, a top Philippines senator has said.

Aquilino Pimentel, who is also a senior member of the world’s leading body of parliamentarians, the Inter Parliamentary Union’s (IPU), said that the devastation wrought by Nargis pushed people to think that it "was the worst thing that could happen to Myanmar [Burma]".

"But actually… not. It was rather the deprivation of the rights of the people by a ruling junta," he told AFP.

The ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) was roundly condemned for its slow reaction to the cyclone and for initially refusing offers of overseas aid for the estimated 2.4 million people left destitute.

But that criticism fed into wider outrage at the military government, who continued to export mass quantities of rice in the cyclone's aftermath despite warnings from aid groups that millions were going hungry.

Journalists were also barred from entering the cyclone-struck Irrawaddy delta, while a number of Burmese reporters were handed lengthy prison sentences for providing images and footage to foreign media.

Pimentel's comments mirror a similar outburst from the ruling junta in the weeks following the cyclone, with the state-run New Light of Myanmar newspaper leading with a story on the "despicable" reporting of the cyclone by foreign media, under the title 'The enemy who is more destructive than Nargis'.

The SPDC was again catapulted into the international spotlight last year after a Rangoon prison court found opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi guilty in August of sheltering US citizen John Yettaw, and sentenced her to a further 18 months under house arrest.

According to the Thailand-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners-Burma (AAPP), 231 political prisoners were locked up in 2009. This comes in spite of several senior-level US diplomatic visits to Burma aimed partly at pressuring the junta to release political prisoners.

"Nothing much seems to be happening in terms of advancing the cause of democracy in Myanmar," Pimentel said, adding that the 14 opposition parliamentarians elected in 1990, which includes Suu Kyi, must be freed.

Rights groups have also called for closer attention to be paid to the persecution of ethnic groups in Burma's border regions, where the government's multiple conflicts with ethnic armies have caused widespread displacement and killings of civilians.

Human Rights Watch complained yesterday that, despite calls for the junta to be investigated for war crimes and crimes against humanity growing louder in 2009, "no government has yet taken the lead in either initiative at the UN".

Reporting by Francis Wade

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