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Burma: in the field

Latest update : 2008-05-28

Reporting from Burma, FRANCE 24's correspondents bring you the full story from the devastated Irrawaddy Delta region. Our correspondents at the Thai-Burma border and on board the French ship, Le Mistral, are covering the aid situation.

Watch the reports from our correspondents and send them your questions


On May 2, Cyclone Nargis pummeled the southwestern coast of Burma. Burmese authorities put the official count of people dead and disappeared at nearly 134,000.  In the devastated Irrawaddy Delta region about 2.5 million people are starting to receive aid, but the Burmese military junta has been reluctant to open the hermetically-sealed Southeast Asian nation to international humanitarian operations.

FRANCE 24’s special correspondents Alice Beaumont and Anaïs Boussat have managed to enter Burma clandestinely, despite the tight restrictions to the international press, from where they are now covering the aftermath of the cyclone in the Irrawaddy region.  Reporter Cyril Payen has been covering the situation along the Thai-Burma border, and Capucine Henry spent a few days aboard the French naval relief ship, Le Mistral, just off the Burmese coast.



Question: Are there any means to force aid into Burma?


A. Boussat and A. Beaumont (special correspondents in Burma): First off, Burma is a sovereign country, so there is no forcing aid into the country if the rulers don’t allow it. Some foreign NGOs have managed to send in people, but they’re typically only those that have operations on the ground.


We’ve heard diplomats say that NGOs should be careful how they position themselves. Burma has become a very fashionable topic over the last few years, but the idea is to help people suffering on the ground and offending the government won’t help in this regard.


Burma historically is very closed to the outside world – some would say paranoid – and forcing in aid would imply requesting a decision from the UN Security Council. Burma’s historical allies Russia and China would block any kind of motion to the end, so it’s not a very realistic option.



Question: Is Western military threat a good way to put pressure on Burma's military junta?


A. Boussat and A. Beaumont (special correspondents in Burma): From what we’ve heard from various sources on the ground, France’s decision to send in a military vessel carrying aid was not a good idea. It was too aggressive. Maybe it would have been smarter to send in aid on a civil boat.


This is the type of action that can aggravate a military regime like Burma – which remains under military embargo.


This is one of the reasons that the Burmese Junta is blocking aid. But I want to emphasize that some aid has reached the country.


This paranoia of foreigners and foreign influence is what they’re afraid of. Aid workers, or indeed any western people on the ground and wandering around uncontrolled could be spies, and they are considered that way.


One of the other interpretations is that the Burmese are very proud. Even if they accept international aid, they insist on distributing it themselves. And everywhere we go, we see the military distributing the aid. It’s to show the Burmese people and world that they are in control, whether this is true or not.


A telling example is that according to Burmese authorities, the emergency relief phase is over, and we’re already in the reconstruction phase. From what we’re seeing on the ground, this is not true. People are in dire need of food and aid and the basic humanitarian element of this disaster has to be taken care of before any real reconstruction can begin.



Question: Is there a food crisis?


A. Boussat and A. Beaumont (special correspondents in Burma): Yes. As international media point out, there is an obvious lack of food.


That being said, it’s very difficult to gauge the amount of food getting to the people. It depends where you are in the delta. It can be very difficult to reach some of the villages. But we’ve travelled to quite a few, and we’ve never seen a village that is not receiving aid. We’ve still seen bodies, and areas that have only begun to receive aid 2 weeks after the cyclone, but no one is dying of famine.


How people are doing really depends on where people are in the delta – whether they’re very isolated or not.


Diplomats say that only a small proportion of aid is reaching the people affected. The UN yesterday said 10 percent. Then Ban Ki-moon said 25 percent, but we wonder where they get their data. Its very hard to estimate these figures. No one is counting village by village. These are ballpark numbers.


There is also an immense effort on the part of regular Burmese people. A real showing of solidarity. People are donating food and giving away their clothes. This aid is reaching the most isolated places and people of all economic backgrounds are helping out any way they can. We find ourselves asking whether this would happen in Europe.



Question: What would happen if you were caught?


A. Boussat and A. Beaumont (special correspondents in Burma): We would be expelled and most likely be barred from coming back. It’s a risk that we’ve taken into consideration. But our concern is the Burmese people that we work with. We don’t speak Burmese, so these people take us around and translate for us - they are invaluable to our work. If they were caught helping us, their fate would be much more dramatic.


But we want to emphasize that we’re being very careful not to expose our translators to any risk.

Date created : 2008-05-18