'Three funerals go by every day'

Burmese refugees here watch and lament their country's near destruction from afar.

Burmese TA 88 224 (photo credit: Tamar Dressler)
Burmese TA 88 224
(photo credit: Tamar Dressler)
Cyclone-ravaged Burma (officially known as Myanmar) seems worlds apart from the small apartment in Tel Aviv's Neveh Sha'anan section where Aung and four of his friends gather to follow the crisis and tell the story of the tiny Burmese community in Israel. Roughly 80 Burmese citizens reside here today; 10 of them are recognized as refugees and several others are in the process of seeking asylum. Most hold menial jobs in construction, restaurants or care for the elderly; many are in their late 20s, having begun their struggle while in university in Burma. This tiny, quiet community would have been left anonymous, lost in the mass of migrant workers and refugee communities in Tel Aviv, but the bloody suppression of the monks' uprising last September and the cyclone that hit their country recently forced them out of the shadows. In Burma, they tell me, a gathering of five people or more is forbidden by the junta. They are ready to talk of the past 20 years under military regime. From Tel Aviv, the community now follows the grave situation in Burma closely and tries to maintain contacts with the families they left behind, but some have apparently lost members of their families, and they fear that the upcoming rainy season will take its toll on the lives of many more homeless and exposed people. Maung, Aung, Scho and many other Burmese citizens here know they've been blacklisted by the military government for protesting against its policy but they go on with their activities. They've participated in several rallies in front of the Burmese Embassy following the uprisings in September 2007, and their photographs have been taken by embassy workers, thus they were not allowed to participate in the recent referendum in the embassy. Following the cyclone, they raised more than $4,000 from their meager salaries and sent the money to Burma to help the needy. They regularly contribute to the All Burma Students' Democratic Front (ABSDF), the largest student and youth organization on Burma's borders. It was founded on 1988 and is fighting for democracy and human rights in Burma alongside other democratic and ethnic forces. They've also rallied and sent letters to US President George W. Bush and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon against the "sham" referendum conducted in Burma only days after the cyclone under heavy military supervision. The letter ends: "We will pave the road to freedom by ourselves." "We now have proof of the military's inhumane policy," it says. "Before we spoke about it, but the world did not listen. But now they can see how the military junta operates, how it withholds aid from huge parts of Burma. It builds camps for its supporters and ignores minorities totally. The world can help and we can help our country." SOME OF the Burmese here agree to photographs, saying, "We know the government in Burma has already blacklisted us, so we have nothing to lose," they explain. Maung completed his degree in mathematics in Burma before escaping to Israel. "If you can pay, you can leave the country," he says. "I'd been arrested three times for demonstrating against the military regime and finally decided to leave and try to change things from the outside." Maung paid $5,000 for the right to leave; he left his parents and brother behind and is currently unaware of their whereabouts following the cyclone. He fears for their lives. Aung was a 19-year-old university student in Yangon in 1998 when he became politically involved and began demonstrating for human rights. He was arrested and severely beaten. His elderly mother signed for his release, agreeing to keep watch over him and deter him from future activities. But Aung could not keep silent at the state policy of denying basic human rights and took to the streets again. He was arrested again. After his release he joined ABSDF and trained with them on the Thailand-Burma border for three months until he was wounded by a missile shot at the camp by the Burmese army. He did not receive treatment and was thrown out of a nearby hospital for fear of the army. Finally he managed to return to Yangon, but six months later persuaded 20 friends to join him and return to the ABSDF. Having no money and hunted by the police, the group managed to reach Mandalay, where they stayed in a monastery for a month. Then Aung decided to leave Burma and try to find a new life for himself. Now his mother lives in the only house in their neighborhood left standing and tells Aung that "at least three funerals go by the window every day. Soon there will be no one left to bury the dead." Aung has been living here for the past eight years; he's married and has two young daughters. He keeps close watch on the damage in his country and hopes the world will not turn a blind eye this time. Other refugees report the harassment their families have suffered after they've left, of being interrogated and confined to certain living areas. They tell me their revered monks are persecuted and how the junta enforces a regime of fear throughout the country. They are not at all surprised at the refusal of their government to accept aid and allow aid workers to reach the affected area. It is their way to remain in control, they explain. Scho is deeply concerned about the rainy season that lasts from June to October. "Our people have no shelters, no homes," he says, "and now the government is forcing them to go back to the villages destroyed by the cyclone. This will take the lives of many people left outside in the rain. We feel helpless here. The junta is doing whatever it can to persuade the world into believing it can take care of the crisis, but it has no ability to do so. Our families suffer while we stand helpless outside. People have no food, no medicine. Even before the cyclone, the food security situation was not at all good in Burma; now even that meager living has been lost." Scho is considering going back to Burma in some way and trying to help his family there. "Israel is good, but it's not my home. I wish I could go back and help my people." AID WORKERS have expressed deep concerns over reports of cyclone survivors prematurely returning to their places of origin in the devastated Irrawaddy River delta. The refugees claim they are being forced by the government to return despite lack of shelter, food and infrastructure. Israeli aid organizations' accounts of their work in Burma following the cyclone confirm the refugees' claims. Many have admitted the junta made delivering aid to the needy parts badly hit by the cyclone nearly impossible. Eran Weintraub, director of Latet, describes the hardships his NGO encountered while trying to provide aid for the victims of the cyclone. "Latet has previously provided aid in more than 20 locations. As soon as the extent of the damage was made public, we opened an emergency center in our usual process. Forty-eight hours later our first team landed in Burma and began working together with a local NGO. This is the only way to work in this highly unusual situation under the restrictions the government poses. We managed to raise NIS 550,000 for this operation and we plan to fly our supplies to Burma and also purchase supplies in Thailand and distribute them directly to the refuges. "I believe that providing help in situations like this tells something of the strength of our nation. We do not differentiate between miseries; personally this operation filled my heart with pride." Weintraub admits that this was perhaps the hardest mission and that the Burmese government did its best to hinder the work of NGOs. "The government does not allow free access to affected areas and conceals the truth of the scope of the disaster. I have no doubt that this will intensify the already existing crisis and many more will die as help is delayed." Giora Becher, East Asia regional director in the Foreign Ministry, says that "the Foreign Ministry, with the support of the Joint flew 7.5 tons of medical supplies to Myanmar immediately after the cyclone. We managed to get the supplies in within 10 days and distribute it through Malteser International, an international NGO that has a relief center in Labutta. We also assisted other NGOs and organizations to enter and work in Myanmar, including IsraAID, Latet and others. It was neither simple nor easy." Israel has maintained diplomatic ties with Burma/Myanmar since the early 1950s. These ties were severed in 1962 when the socialist party took over and reestablished in 1988 when the military junta took control of the government. Myanmar operates an embassy in Tel Aviv and Israel has an embassy in Yangon. THE BURMESE refugees believe that Israel may be involved in arms trade with Burma, and implore the government to consider this issue. "If this is true, then the knowledge and tools Israel supplies are killing innocent people in Burma," they say, adding that Uzi submachine guns are used by soldiers in the streets of Yangon. Yet all five show deep gratitude toward the country that took them in. "We love Israel; we want to explain to the Israeli people about the situation in Burma." The Foreign Ministry's Becher denies that Israel supplies arms to Myanmar. "We strictly adhere to the arms embargo imposed on Burma in the '90s. No Israeli company under Defense Ministry license sells arms to Myanmar. If Israeli manufactured weapons reach Myanmar via a third party it is not our responsibility. The relationship with Myanmar is very limited; we operate a small embassy, and there is some small scale trade between the countries due to the restricted and closed economy of Myanmar. Our main cooperation is a project designated to train local farmers from Myanmar in modern agriculture in Israel. The rumors of arms trade need to be refuted." The Burmese government's official death toll is grossly underreported as it has stopped counting the dead. It is feared that due to lack of relief efforts, a total of a million already have died or will die from this catastrophe. Damage is estimated at more than $10 billion, which makes it Burma's worst natural disaster. The UN estimated in its report that 1.5 million people were "severely affected." According to news agencies, US warships will leave the shores of Myanmar after the ruling military junta refused permission for the delivery of aid supplies to the cyclone-stricken Irrawaddy delta. And the refugees sadly conclude, "The junta is withholding aid. Those who do not support the government will die. This is a violation of human rights; the junta is merciless."