Burma Blocks Cyclone Aid

Burma’s reclusive military government has impounded U.N. aid in the wake of Cyclone Nargis, as the confirmed death toll reaches 60,000 and the top U.S. diplomat calls on the junta to reconsider.

The international community and the Burmese people are calling on Burma’s secretive regime to let humanitarian aid and disaster relief experts into areas worst-hit by Tropical Cyclone Nargis, where the official death toll has already reached 60,000.

Speaking as the United Nations announced it would cease aid flights into Burma until officials release two planeloads of emergency food supplies they have impounded, the top U.S. diplomat in Burma called on the junta to allow the international community in.

“Take in good faith the desire of the international community to come in and help the millions of Burmese victims of this terrible storm,” Shari Villarosa, chargé d’affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Rangoon, said in an interview.

“They did not explain to us their thinking but we are hoping that they will reconsider their decision based on the magnitude of the damages,” Villarosa said.

“This is damage that no one country can handle. The international community is prepared to come in to assist the Burmese authorities in getting assistance to the people. The longer the delay, the more victims there will be.”

U.N. aid impounded

She spoke as the Burmese authorities held two planeloads of crucial emergency food supplies and equipment sent by the U.N.’s World Food Programme. Hundreds of thousands of people were swamped by a 12-foot storm surge from the cyclone in the middle of the night and have now lost everything, Villarosa said

“It’s a truly terrible situation. Some assistance has been going into those areas but it’s still far short of what is needed. The Burmese government has told us that they welcome assistance from us. However, they are not willing to admit our disaster assistance professionals who are the experts on making sure the assistance is distributed to the victims,” she added.

A spokesman for the WFP in Bangkok said Friday that the agency had “no choice” but to suspend aid flights pending guarantees that the food will reach survivors of Cyclone Nargis. “The food aid and equipment that we managed to get in has been confiscated,” Paul Risely said, referring to two shipments containing 38 tonnes of high-energy biscuits—which would have fed 95,000 people.
Victims plead for help

Her plea was backed up by the storm victims themselves.

“We are in urgent need every hour,” a man from Pyapon city in the worst-hit Irrawaddy delta region said. “Be it the U.N. or the U.S., friends or enemies, we need all kinds of help from everyone. Everyone, monks and laymen and students, is welcoming the U.N. and the U.S.”

“Villages and people died horrifically, and there are many deaths. There are corpses floating in a row along the Pyapon river,” he said.

“There are no rescuers. They don’t come here. In the city of Pyapon, however, the [quasi-government] USDA and all are just idle. Only when the authorities come do they surround them and try to be in the video. They’re just faking it…They don’t really provide help,” the man said.

USDA denotes the quasi-official Union Solidarity Development Association, ostensibly a civilian social organization but with close ties to the ruling junta.

Villarosa said that while some of the storm damage was being cleared in Rangoon, with water and electricity supplies back online in the embassy, very little was being done to help communities elsewhere.

Those communities, according to survivors, are now trying to help themselves as best they can.

Around 20,000 cyclone victims from Labutta township and Hmaw-gyun in the heart of the Irrawaddy delta have been pouring into the city of Myaung-mya continuously, beginning late on May 6, local residents said, with emergency reception centers set up in the city’s schools.

Many more are on the way, according to resident U Aung Kyin.

“Currently, people here are working [at the rescue effort], but they can’t manage. The authorities are working, but it’s not enough,” he said.

“People in wards and some who can’t really afford to do it any longer give things to the authorities but are also donating door-to-door. People in the city are going to the camps and donating medicines, food, and clothes,” U Aung Kyin said.

Injuries and trauma

Witnesses said many of the victims were in a “panicky” condition, as many were the sole survivors from their family or group. Survivors had often endured harsh conditions clinging onto trees or wreckage and needed medical help for sores and cuts that were becoming infected.

“The main things they need are water and food—food and medicine. These things have not arrived yet,” U Aung Kyin said.

“Also, their health is not good. They have sores on their bodies. They were exposed to the water from the ocean and have not had a chance to wash with fresh water. Every day, they are in this condition, so there are big red patches on their bodies. There are red bumps on their backs.”

Bid to engage

Villarosa said the U.S. Embassy would continue to engage the Burmese government in a bid to persuade the authorities to allow relief workers and food supplies to reach the neediest people.

She added that opposition leader and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi was safe, although little was known of the fate of the regime’s other political prisoners.

“We understand that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is OK, that her house did not sustain any major damages. We have not gotten much information about the state of key political prisoners in Insein prison,” said Villarosa, who estimates the total death toll from the storms will rise to 100,000.

“We will continue offering U.S. support, humanitarian relief support to the Burmese people. We will continue doing this. We will continue talking to the government.”

Earlier, Rangoon residents accused the government of using scarce resources to bestow favors on its political supporters, with rumors circulating of preferential water deliveries to certain houses, while the rest of a neighborhood was ignored.

100 more relief experts needed

On Thursday, UN humanitarian coordinator Sir John Holmes voiced “disappointment and frustration at the slowness of this process, at the suspicion with which the international relief workers are being regarded.”

Aid workers “have no political agenda. They simply want to help people and to recover from this dreadful catastrophe, so I hope very much that cooperation will improve. I can’t guarantee that it will but it will be our sole objective to make sure that it does,” Holmes said.

The United Nations would want to distribute aid with trucks, helicopters, and boats, because infrastructure has all but vanished in large areas of Burma, he said. Some 75 international U.N. staff and a large number of local staff are already on the ground there, Holmes said, but another 100 disaster relief experts are also needed.

“We need from our organization, the office for the coordination of humanitarian affairs, to coordinate operations on the ground. And each of the main agencies and NGO’s have their teams they need to get in. We’re talking not huge numbers of people but maybe it would be very good to get another 100 people to help with this process,” he said.

Where U.N. workers cannot monitor how aid is distributed, he said, the Burmese Red Cross and other organizations often monitor instead. “Where we can’t distribute [aid] ourselves, we will monitor as much as we can and make sure that it’s being distributed fairly and evenly and not diverted or manipulated in any way,” he said.

Original reporting by RFA’s Burmese service. Director: Nancy Shwe. Executive producer: Susan Lavery. Translated by Than Than Win. Written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie and Sarah Jackson-Han.


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