Burma's military government has begun forcing cyclone victims to leave relief centers and return to their homes in the devastated Irawaddy Delta. U.N. officials are condemning the action. They say it is putting families at risk of disease and exposure. VOA's Luis Ramirez reports from our Southeast Asia bureau in Bangkok.
Witnesses say the military government has been - in some cases - handing out bamboo poles and tarps and telling people to go back to their villages and rebuild their homes. They say the government is moving to clear out a number of camps south of the main city, Rangoon, where thousands have sought refuge after Cyclone Nargis ripped through the country May 2 leaving at least 134,000 people dead or missing.
Terje Skavdal, Asia director of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, told reporters in Bangkok Friday the agency condemns the forced returns of disaster victims.
"We do not endorse premature return to areas to where there are no services," Skavdal said. "People need to be assisted in the settlements and satisfactory conditions need to be created before they can return to their place of origin. Any forced or coerced movement of people is completely unacceptable."
Reports from the hard-hit areas say conditions are far from satisfactory, with many places still flooded, bodies decomposing in the sun, and no electricity or clean water available.
Anupama Rao Singh, the Asia regional director for the U.N. children's agency UNICEF has recently returned after touring places hit by the cyclone. She compares what she saw in Burma to the aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami that killed more than 225,000 people.
"The scale of destruction and devastation is really unprecedented and certainly in my personal perception, having visited Aceh a few weeks after the tsunami struck, I think we are dealing with a humanitarian disaster of pretty much the same magnitude but different challenges and complexities on the ground, and therefore the relief phase is by no means over. It will have to continue, at least I think for the coming months," Singh said.
Burma's generals insist the relief phase is over. They say it is time to work on reconstruction, for which they say they need $11 billion.
U.N. officials say that nearly four weeks after the disaster, more than a million people affected by the disaster have yet to receive any relief aid.
International relief agencies on Friday complained the junta continues to hinder access by foreign relief workers to victims in the hardest-hit regions.