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May 19, 2008 (AP)‚ A stack of pornographic films at Mg Zaw’s street stall hides some even more sought-after contraband: raw footage of the death and destruction caused by Cyclone Nargis.
Images of bloated bodies and flattened villages have been broadcast around the world since the 2-3 May cyclone, but inside Burma they are available only on the black market. And copies are selling fast.
Burma’s military junta, which has come under global criticism for mishandling relief efforts for survivors, does not want its people to see the full devastation caused by the storm. Tightly controlled state media paint a picture of a country quickly recovering, with mostly upbeat images of the country’s military leaders handing out aid to survivors.
The unauthorized videos show the more gruesome reality: hungry survivors squatting on roadsides, corpses floating in flooded waters, injured survivors being helped by villagers.
"People buy them because they are interested in seeing what happened out there," said street vendor Mg Zaw, who runs a pirated movie stall in central Rangoon that started selling the cyclone videos two days after the storm.
Priced at about 50 cents, some hawkers said they have been selling about 100 copies a day.
Curiosity draws some viewers. Others say they felt that watching the cyclone could help them cope with the tragedy, the worst natural disaster to hit Burma in recent history.
The cyclone killed more than 78,000 people, and another 56,000 are missing, the junta says. The Red Cross and the UN expect the death toll to soar well above 100,000.
Khin Soe, 28, bought one of the videos Saturday afternoon, shortly after learning that his parents and three siblings died in the disaster.
"I feel very sad, and I want to know what happened, that’s why I am buying this," said Khin Soe, who left his hometown in the Irrawaddy delta two years ago for a job at a hotel in Rangoon, Burma’s commercial capital.
The storm ripped into Rangoon but did the most damage in the low-lying Irrawaddy River delta to the southwest. Foreign aid workers and most Burmese citizens are generally barred from traveling to the area.
The vendors say the videos were shot in various places including Labutta, a rice-growing township that was one of the worst-hit areas.
A similar phenomenon occurred after the December 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that largely spared Burma. In countries such as Thailand and India, videos of the disaster ‚ mostly taken from TV broadcasts ‚ were widely sold.
The cyclone video is the second illicit video to become the talk of the town in Rangoon this year. In February, the hottest selling movie was the latest Rambo film, which features Sylvester Stallone’s musclebound hero rescuing a group of Christian missionaries from brutal government troops in Burma’s jungles.
It became a best-seller after being banned by the government.