Sneaking Cyclone News Out of Myanmar to Facebook

A half-clothed baby's body entangled in brush. Rows of lifeless children lying on the muddy ground, the face of one of them blue. Survivors crouching close together in mud under tarps.

These are images from the disaster caused by Cyclone Nargis that the military regime that rules Myanmar does not want you to see, but they have found their way out of the repressive country on Facebook.com.

The social networking Web site is accomplishing what Myanmar authorities have tried to prevent Western journalists from doing, by barring them from visiting refugee camps and keeping them away from the few aid workers who have been allowed into the country.

Relief workers and survivors inside Myanmar, formerly Burma, are sending e-mail updates and photos to friends and contacts outside the country to be posted on Facebook.

This one was posted May 13, 8:29 a.m.:

"Most health issues we encountered were cuts and injuries (all of them with some degree of serious infection), water borne diseases. There were two people with serious infections and one of them for sure will have to amputate her arm. The other one may be ok if he can get to the hospital in time. We left them money to be taken to Yangon Hospital ASAP but not sure if they will go. The doctors in our group saw more patients in half a day's time than one week's practice in Yangon."

Another one, titled "Fwd: Situation in Burma, May 12, 2008, Generals Making Fortune by Stealing Aid for the Victims" reads:

"Plenty of relief materials, provided by UN and INGOs for the cyclone victims, are being sold at some markets in Rangoon. Some shop owners said that they bought them from soldiers and they are now reselling. As instructed by the military junta, some business companies are also distributing relief assistance, but they are not trained to make relief effort and their way of delivery is not professional. In some cases, a truck with Htoo Companies Logo arrived at the waiting victims and threw the food packages to the crowd from the car, without setting foot on the ground. Many packages were damaged.

"Meanwhile, the junta's press scrutiny board is instructing journalists to cover the story of soldiers helping the victims, generals visiting disaster areas and distributing aid to the victims, and asking the people to vote for the constitution, etc."

Since the cyclone hit 11 days ago, already there are more than a dozen online groups on Facebook devoted to Nargis-related news and relief efforts with thousands of members.

One of the groups called Support the Relief Efforts for Burma (Myanmar) Cyclone Disaster Victims has more than 6,500 members. Its creator, Sophie Lwin, is the director of Burma Global Action Network and a Burmese native who lives in the United States.

Lwin said since the Facebook group has gained popularity, more people with eyewitness accounts have come forward with pictures and updates on conditions from inside disaster area. There are now more than 90 pictures on the group's page, including many that are not from news organizations.

Lwin said they were getting firsthand accounts from their contacts inside Myanmar by phone, e-mail and instant messaging. She added that it was a risky practice.

"If the junta finds someone who is corresponding information with any foreign entities, those individuals face 10 [years] to 15 years in prison, torture, with their families' lives at risk," Lwin said. "No fair trial, no defense."

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