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Report from Burmese-Thai Border on the Devastating Cyclone that Has Killed Over 15,000 People in Burma

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In Burma, at least 15,000 people have now died following a devastating cyclone. Another 30,000 people are still missing. Aid agencies estimate as many as one million people may be without shelter. The storm hit Burma on Friday night. David Scott Mathieson joins us on the telephone from the Thai-Burma border. He is a consultant to Human Rights Watch on Burma. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: In Burma, at least 15,000 people have now died following a devastating cyclone — another 30,000 missing. Aid agencies estimate as many as a million people may be without shelter. The storm hit Friday night. David Scott Mathieson is a consultant to Human Rights Watch on Burma. He joins us right now on the telephone from the Thai-Burma border.

David, thank you for joining us. Can you describe what you’re seeing there?

DAVID SCOTT MATHIESON: Well, here on the Thai-Burma border, things are actually quite quiet. The cyclone didn’t hit too badly in the border area, but it’s very difficult for people here to contact their family members and other people in Rangoon and parts of the Irrawaddy Delta, because all the phone lines are down. So we’re in a similar state of confusion and difficult access to information as everyone else at the moment.

AMY GOODMAN: And the information you have on whether aid groups are being allowed in to help?

DAVID SCOTT MATHIESON: What we’re hearing is that the United Nations have assembled a team to go in, and many other aid organizations that already work inside Burma are preparing responses, and that some organizations have been given access to the affected areas by the military government, including World Vision and other UN agencies. So that’s a positive move by the military government to actually commit people to go in.

AMY GOODMAN: Has Burma seen anything like this?

DAVID SCOTT MATHIESON: Not in a very, very long time. I mean, the western coast of Burma gets cyclones occasionally, and there was quite a major cyclone that his Arakan State further north to the cyclone that hit on Friday and Saturday, but not of this magnitude.

AMY GOODMAN: At the same time this is happening, the First Lady, Laura Bush, announced the US government will give $250,000 in emergency aid, and President Bush is signing legislation to award the Congressional Gold Medal to Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace laureate who remains detained in Burma. Can you talk about the significance?

DAVID SCOTT MATHIESON: Well, all these things are very positive. There are tens of thousands of people in the affected areas in the Irrawaddy Delta and Rangoon and other parts that really need emergency relief assistance. So I really think that’s what the United States government should be focusing on now, is actually engaging with the military government and saying to them, let’s put politics aside momentarily and really focus on delivering aid and expertise to these affected areas to help your own people. That should be the real focus of the international community’s efforts now, is to engage with the SPDC and say that their people are far more important than the sham political process that they’ve been going through in the past several years.

AMY GOODMAN: And the Burmese regime saying it will proceed with a referendum, that they say the vote, though, will be postponed in forty-seven towns hardest hit by the cyclone — the significance of this referendum?

DAVID SCOTT MATHIESON: Yes, it is. I mean, I think it’s a reflection of reality that they have postponed the referendum in those badly affected areas and also a measure of how seriously they take this referendum step. I mean, this is a very dangerous time for the State Peace and Development Council. They’ve been planning this for quite a long time, and it must be very tense for them. I mean, this is the first taste of democracy that the people in Burma have had for eighteen years, and there’s a lot of built-up anger and antagonism towards the military government, not just on the sham political process and the repressive constitution, but also on basic living standards, and continuing anger over the crackdown on peaceful protesters last year in August and September. So it’s quite a tense period for the military government. And now you have this quite remarkable natural disaster to contend with.

AMY GOODMAN: What role do you think the corporations should play that profit in Burma? For example, Chevron was grandfathered in, even though there are sanctions, having bought Unocal. They helped to build the oil pipeline. What about their role now?

DAVID SCOTT MATHIESON: Well, I think that a lot of the oil and gas companies in Burma — not necessarily the ones that were there when that pipeline was built — but I think that they have a continuing obligation for the people who live in those areas that still undergo human rights violations as a result of militarization. I think for companies like that who do invest with Burma, they have an obligation to the Burmese people to actually help them out in times of crisis like this. I would not suggest that more companies should invest in Burma at this time, certainly not oil and gas companies, because of the nature of how they operate and human rights violations that go along with it. But I think for any multinational corporation currently in Burma, it’s time to dig into their profits from the country and actually start helping people more than they have been doing.

AMY GOODMAN: This just in from BBC, they say the death toll has topped 22,000. And from Times Online in Britain, aid workers fear Burma cyclone deaths will top 50,000. What will happen along the border, David Scott Mathieson, and why are you there? Presumably you went there before Friday.

DAVID SCOTT MATHIESON: Yeah, I actually do a lot of my work here. And I mean, you know, last year, when the crackdown against peaceful protesters happened, even though we saw a few hundred people escape Rangoon and come across the border, there were many more thousands that were crossing the border and coming to the border because of fighting in eastern Burma. Now, I mean, there are two million migrant workers in Thailand at the moment from Burma, and most of them come not just because of the political situation, but because of poor living standards and low opportunity.

Now, the magnitude of the cyclone just keeps getting bigger and bigger and more tragic. So I would not be surprised if there was a greater influx of people just seeking a better life and employment opportunities as a result of this. And that’s why I think the international community really should be pressing the military government to respond to this tragedy effectively and keep the people in that area and get them aid and reconstruction as quickly as possible and do it with the best practices of human rights standards as they can, because they have to be very careful dealing with the Burmese military, which has a abominable human rights record.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, the cyclone that’s devastated Burma, set to push world rice prices higher, could have a serious impact on food supplies across the region. We already are seeing food riots across the region.

DAVID SCOTT MATHIESON: That’s right. I mean, I think that it’s unfortunate where the cyclone hit, which is the delta region, which is one of the most — I mean, it’s one of the rice bowls of Burma. And there were already serious food production and food shortage problems inside Burma, mostly as a result of the military government’s restrictions and other pretty disastrous economic programs, but certainly it’s going to have an effect, I think, on the region. Burma was already sending rice to Sri Lanka, for example, in the past few weeks. And rising commodity prices within the country have created a lot of political tension, as we saw last year. So I think this will certainly have an effect on not just politics in Burma, but in Southeast Asia, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: David Scott Mathieson, joining us from the Thai-Burma border, is a Burma consultant to Human Rights Watch, speaking to us on the telephone. We will continue to report on the tragedy. Again, estimates ranging from, BBC saying now, 22,000, the death toll, up to aid workers talking about it possibly surpassing 50,000.

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