May 19, 2008 / 5:07 AM / 10 years ago

News-starved Burmese snap up grim cyclone videos

YANGON (Reuters) - With state TV only showing footage of generals handing out food at model tented villages, people in Myanmar are snapping up bootleg video discs of bloated corpses, desperate refugees and villages ravaged by Cyclone Nargis.

“Myanmar television is useless,” said one Yangon businessman who bought the underground VCDs because he wanted to see the raw, uncensored version of the storm that killed his brother in Labutta, one of the hardest-hit towns in the Irrawaddy delta.

“I want to see what really happened,” the man, who asked not to be named, said.

Two weeks after Nargis struck, the former Burma’s military rulers have admitted that nearly 78,000 people were killed and another 56,000 are missing after one of the most devastating cyclones ever to hit Asia.

Yet still they refuse to accept large-scale foreign relief operations, and insist the army is well on top of the distribution of supplies in an area of delta the size of Austria.

State media, rigidly controlled by the junta, is reporting nothing of the concerns of international aid agencies for the 2.5 million people left clinging to survival, or the columns of beggars lining mud-clogged roads coming out of the delta.

Instead, it has been pumping out sound bites from Prime Minister Thein Sein saying the situation is under control.

“We have already finished our first phase of emergency relief. We are going into the second phase, the rebuilding stage,” he said.

BLOATED CORPSES

The uncut footage on the two VCDs presents a very different picture.

Although one vendor said some pictures were taken from the Internet, two large segments — one 53 minutes long, the other 25 minutes — appear to have been shot by Myanmar state television.

Some of the images of flooded paddy fields and army officers handing food to villagers have made it to air. The pictures of rotting corpses and desperate survivors have not.

One VCD shows aerial views of the delta from a helicopter before soldiers land in a devastated village by the sea.

The cameraman films a dozen bloated and blackened bodies lying in pools of water as two men clinging to plastic jerry cans try to swim across a fast-flowing river.

The helicopter returns to the village later with some boxes of instant noodles.

The second disc, marked “Labutta,” shows people carrying white coffins through the streets, an elderly man lying on a table, his ankle crushed, and a man with the skin peeled off the back of his head.

Next comes a six-minute clip of people and water buffaloes lying dead in paddyfields as survivors walk past with a few salvaged possessions on their heads.

With so little public trust in the state media and many Internet news sites blocked, most people rely for information on Burmese-language radio broadcasts from outside the country.

The other source is simple word of mouth.

At one VCD stall, the vendor and a policeman peppered the businessman, who had just returned from Labutta, with questions about the cyclone: How did people die? Why do survivors stay in their villages and not go to camps?

His replies — impossible to verify — feed into the morass of rumor and half-truth that passes for news in one of the most information-starved countries on earth.

“There are corpses with their ears and hands cut off because they were wearing jewelry,” he said. “At one village, soldiers fired into the air to force people to leave and go to a camp.”

Writing by Ed Cropley; Editing by David Fox

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