YANGON Myanmar's junta lashed out at offers of foreign aid on Thursday, criticizing donors' demands for access to the Irrawaddy delta and saying Cyclone Nargis' 2.4 million victims could "stand by themselves".
"The people from Irrawaddy can survive on self-reliance without chocolate bars donated by foreign countries," the Kyemon newspaper said in a Burmese-language editorial.
As with all media in the former Burma, it is tightly controlled by the army and is believed to reflect the thinking of the top generals, who until now have shown signs of growing, albeit grudging, acceptance of outside cyclone assistance.
The editorial also accused the international community of being stingy, noting that the United Nations' "flash appeal" was still a long way short of its $201 million target nearly four weeks after the disaster, which left 134,000 dead or missing.
The level of aid stands in stark contrast to the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, when governments around the world promised $2 billion within the first week.
"Myanmar needs about $11 billion. The pledging amounted to over $150 million, less than the $201 million mentioned by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon as emergency aid," it said, adding a thinly veiled swipe at arch-enemy the United States.
"There is one big nation that even extended economic sanctions on Myanmar although it had already been known that Myanmar was in for a very powerful storm," it said.
The tone of the editorial is at odds with recent praise of the U.N. relief effort, but follows criticism of the junta's extension on Tuesday of the five-year house arrest of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
U.S. President George W. Bush said he was "deeply troubled" by the extension and called for the more than 1,000 political prisoners to be freed.
The State Department said the Nobel laureate's detention would not affect U.S. cyclone aid, but a top U.S. commander said warships laden with aid would leave waters near the delta if they did not get a green light soon.
France, which has diverted a naval vessel to the Thai island of Phuket to offload aid supplies, demanded the immediate release of Suu Kyi, who has now spent nearly 13 of the last 18 years in prison or under house arrest.
Her National League for Democracy party won a 1990 poll by a landslide only to be denied power by the military, which has ruled the impoverished country for 46 years.
The situation remains dire for many survivors in the delta, the "rice bowl of Asia" in the days before what was then Burma won independence from Britain in 1948.
The army has started to bury bodies in communal graves, villagers said, although there has been no official word on plans to dispose of the thousands of corpses that still litter the fields and waterways.
Bodies are grotesquely bloated or rotting to the bone and covered in swarms of flies. The stench of death remains strong.
"The soldiers told everyone to shoo, to go away," one woman said at a communal burial site in Khaw Mhu, 40 km (25 miles) southwest of Yangon, where soldiers covered bodies in "white powder" before pouring concrete over them.
Private donors, who received assurances in state media this week that they could go where they wanted in the delta, have also run into problems, with 46 drivers and vehicles being impounded on Sunday night after a trip out of the former capital.
"They told us not to make any donations to people begging by the road," one of those held overnight told Reuters. "It is said that our donations will spoil their appetite for hard work. We completely disagree with it."
FEWER THAN HALF GET HELP
Three weeks after the cyclone's 120 mph (190 kph) winds and sea surge devastated the delta, the U.N. says it is slowly being given more access, with all its staff with pending visa requests being granted permission to enter the country.
However, getting aid and experts to the delta remains a very different proposition. The latest assessment from the U.N.'s disaster response arm suggests fewer than half of victims have had any help from "local, national or international actors".
Witnesses say many villages have received no food, clean water or shelter, and farmers are struggling against huge odds to plant a new crop to avoid long-term food shortages.
"We have only until June to plant the main rice crop," one farmer called Huje said in the village of Paw Kahyan Lay, 40 km (25 miles) southwest of Yangon.
"Our fields are flooded with salt-water and we have no water buffalo to plough with," the 47-year-old said, standing with his daughter in the ruins of their home.
(Writing by Ed Cropley; Editing by Darren Schuettler and Sanjeev Miglani)