Apart from the sound of children crying, the town of Labutta is strangely silent.
Traumatised by the ordeal of surviving cyclone Nargis, few people have anything to say. But it is also fear bred by 46 years of repression by military regimes that keeps them quiet. Although overwhelmed by the worst disaster in Myanmar’s recent history, the junta has turned down foreign help and insists on using its ragtag infrastructure and poorly equipped military to conduct a grossly mismanaged relief operation for some 2 million people in distress.
And no one dares to protest. Even aid agencies are cautious. "There are certainly parameters around whatever we do. It is very sensitive politically, but within those parameters we are getting through," said Tim Costelloe of World Vision in Yangon, one of the few foreign aid workers allowed in.
Aid workers said critical supplies were reaching Labutta, a town of 20,000, whose population more than doubled with 30,000 refugees streaming in from dozens of surrounding villages devastated in the May 3 cyclone. But efforts to rush food and medicine from Labutta to lower-lying parts of the delta that were hardest hit have been slowed by the military’s intense micromanaging.
"The government wants total control of the situation although they can’t provide much and they have no experience in relief efforts," said a leading aid worker for an international aid organisation. "We have to report to them every step of the way, every decision we make."
"Their eyes are everywhere, monitoring what we do, who we talk to, what we bring in and how much," the aid worker said in a soft voice, constantly looking around nervously as his assistant turned off all the lights except one dim lamp. "Sorry, sorry. We don’t want them to see you here. They don’t trust us, as it is," he told a foreign reporter in Labutta.
The town, about 200m inland, is littered with flattened thatch-roofed homes and fallen trees. But it fared better than most neighbouring villages, with several structures withstanding the cyclone’s 190km/hr winds and the tidal surge it whipped up.