Myanmar arrests activist as U.S. aid ships leave

YANGON Thu Jun 5, 2008 2:30am EDT

The USS Essex is seen from a helicopter about 80 nautical miles south of Myanmar's Irrawaddy Delta May 16, 2008. REUTERS/Vivek Prakash

The USS Essex is seen from a helicopter about 80 nautical miles south of Myanmar's Irrawaddy Delta May 16, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/Vivek Prakash

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YANGON (Reuters) - Myanmar has detained a top activist comedian involved in a private aid effort for cyclone victims, a relative said, as U.S. warships sailed away on Thursday after the military junta refused to accept their aid offer.

Zarganar, who was last detained in the crackdown on fuel price protests in September, was taken from his Yangon home by secret police on Wednesday evening, the family member said, on condition of anonymity.

They also seized his computer and several banned films, including the latest Rambo movie, which features the U.S. Vietnam War veteran taking on the former Burma's ruling military on behalf of Christian ethnic Karen rebels.

Police also found a copy of the leaked video of the lavish "champagne and diamonds" wedding in 2006 of army supremo Than Shwe's daughter, which caused outrage among ordinary people in one of Asia's poorest countries.

"They searched his room and took away some CDs, including the latest Rambo film, the wedding ceremony of Senior General Than Shwe's daughter, records on damage by Cyclone Nargis and the hard disc from his computer," the family source said.

Zarganar's current whereabouts are unknown, and he is expected to be questioned for several days, the source added.

His detention is likely to cause concern for the many informal private groups who are quietly collecting aid in the former capital and trucking it to the Irrawaddy delta, where Cyclone Nargis has left 2.4 million people in need of help.

More than a month after the storm, which also left 134,000 people dead or missing, many survivors have not yet been reached and Western nations and foreign aid groups say the relief effort is being hampered by the country's military rulers.

After more than two weeks of waiting for a green light that never came, four U.S. warships laden with supplies and 22 helicopters set sail on Thursday for Thailand from international waters near the delta.

"Should the Burmese rulers have a change of heart and request our full assistance for their suffering people, we are prepared to help," Admiral Timothy Keating, the U.S. military's top regional commander, said.

EVICTIONS

In its first assessment of the junta's response to the disaster, Amnesty International said the government was stepping up its eviction of victims from emergency shelters, but said it was unclear whether this was official policy.

"The government's actions place tens of thousands of already vulnerable survivors at increased risk of death, disease or starvation," the London-based rights group said.

The United Nations and aid organizations already established in Myanmar before the cyclone are able to get relief supplies to the delta, although red tape continues to keep many foreign disaster experts and relief workers in Yangon.

The U.N.'s World Food Program estimates it will need to feed at least 750,000 people in Yangon and the delta for some time to come.

(Writing by Ed Cropley; Editing by Darren Schuettler and Sanjeev Miglani)

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