YANGON Myanmar must stop forcing cyclone survivors to return to their shattered homes where they face more misery or even death, rights groups said on Saturday, as a U.S. official accused the junta of being "deaf and dumb" to foreign aid pleas.
The former Burma's junta started evicting destitute families from government-run cyclone relief centres on Friday, apparently fearing the 'tented villages' might become permanent.
"It's unconscionable for Burma's generals to force cyclone victims back to their devastated homes," Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.
"Claiming a return to 'normalcy' is no basis for returning people to greater misery and possible death," he added.
Myanmar has said the rescue and relief effort is largely over and it is focused on reconstruction, but the United Nations has said the scale of the devastation means the relief phase after Cyclone Nargis struck on May 2 is likely to last six months.
In some of the bluntest comments by Washington on Myanmar's response to the cyclone, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said tens of thousands had died due to the military government's refusal to allow foreign aid.
Nearly a week after junta leader Than Shwe promised to allow in "all" legitimate foreign aid workers, 45 remaining U.N. visa requests had been approved on Wednesday, but red tape is still hampering access to the Irrawaddy delta.
U.S. and other Western naval ships cruising nearby have also not been allowed to deliver aid directly to the devastated areas.
Locals and aid workers said on Friday 39 camps in the immediate vicinity of Kyauktan, 30 km south of Yangon, were being cleared as part of a general eviction plan.
"We knew we had to go at some point but we had hoped for more support," 21-year-old trishaw driver Kyaw Moe Thu said as he trudged out of the camp with his five brothers and sisters.
They had been given 20 bamboo poles and some tarpaulins to help rebuild their lives in the Irrawaddy delta, where 134,000 people were left dead or missing by Cyclone Nargis on May 2.
A government official said at one camp where people had been told to clear out at short notice that it was for their own good.
"It is better that they move to their homes where they are more stable," the official said.
SURVIVING ON FISH AND FROGS
U Kyi, who fled with his wife to a camp in Kawhmu, south of Yangon, days after the storm, said he would prefer to go home.
"Unfortunately, almost the entire village is still marooned and we cannot go back," said the 70-year-old.
One senior U.N. official in Yangon said the pace of the closures had caught many agencies by surprise.
"We knew it was going to happen, but we didn't expect it to happen so fast," said the official, who declined to be named.
The United Nations could not confirm rumours that the evictions were occurring in state-run camps across the delta, but U.N. spokeswoman Marie Okabe told reporters in New York "any forced or coerced movement of people is unacceptable."
The evictions come after official media lashed out at offers of foreign aid, criticising donors' demands for access to the delta and saying cyclone victims could "stand by themselves" and did not need "chocolate bars" from foreign countries.
A Friday editorial in the New Light of Myanmar said: "Myanmar people can easily get fish for dishes by just fishing in the fields and ditches" and that "large edible frogs are abundant".
The media is believed to reflect the thinking of the top generals, who until now have shown signs of grudging acceptance of outside assistance after the cyclone.
Official papers on Saturday carried a commentary on a trip by Senior General Than Shwe to the delta area, with photographs of Shwe comforting cyclone victims, including one besides neat looking rows of tents it said were in a relief camp in Pyapon.
A positive aspect of the relief effort so far was that there did not appear to have been a major outbreak of diseases such as cholera, said a spokeswoman in Yangon for the charity CARE.
"We are teaching people how to treat water and make it safe. But they are used to dealing with polluted water and difficult conditions, and they pretty much know what to do already."
CONTRAST WITH ACEH AND BANGLADESH
In Singapore, the visiting U.S. defense secretary contrasted Myanmar's reluctance to accept aid from the U.S. military with the willingness of Indonesia and Bangladesh to accept help after the 2004 Aceh tsunami and a cyclone in Bangladesh last November.
"With Burma, the situation has been very different -- at a cost of tens of thousands of lives," Gates told an annual gathering of Asian security and defence officials.
Gates said Washington had tried as many as 15 times to get the junta to accept more aid in the current crisis.
"It has not been us that have been deaf and dumb in response to the pleas of the international community but the government in Myanmar," he said, referring to international pleas to allow in more foreign aid and relief workers.
Four weeks after the disaster, the United Nations says fewer than half of the 2.4 million people affected have received help from the government, or international or local aid groups.
(Additional reporting by Andrew Gray, Jan Dahinten and Melanie Lee in Singapore)