Wednesday, 14 May 2008

Myanmar Government Still Blocking Relief

A collapsed building provides some shelter from the disaster in Thanaden, a village near Yangon.

YANGON, Myanmar (NYT)— Further deliveries of small-scale aid arrived in Myanmar on Tuesday — a darkly clouded and rainy day in Yangon and in the south — but international aid experts and diplomats here in the main city expressed concern that the government may not be up to delivering it, a task it has claimed almost exclusively as its own.

In Brussels on Tuesday, the foreign policy chief of the European Union, Javier Solana, said that if the Myanmar government continued to bar large-scale aid, outside donors should find a way to deliver it anyway.

“We have to use all the means to help those people,” he said. “The United Nations charter opens some avenues if things cannot be resolved in order to get the humanitarian aid to arrive.”

Ten days after the devastating cyclone struck, the isolationist military government has slightly eased its restrictions on aid but is still blocking most large-scale deliveries of relief supplies, aid officials said. Adding to the difficulties, the hundreds of thousands of people who most need help are largely in remote and inaccessible coastal and delta regions.

Myanmar’s state television reported that the death toll from the May 3 cyclone had risen again, to 34,273, The Associated Press reported, with 27,838 missing. The toll has been increasing daily, as more and more of the missing are identified as dead. The United Nations has estimated that the toll could be more than 60,000.

Still, the junta was making some progress in accepting aid. Two more American relief flights landed Tuesday, and United States officials said they were talking to the government about expanding the relief program.

But Shari Villarosa, the top American diplomat in Myanmar, said the junta had refused the United States’ offer to send in search-and-rescue teams and disaster-relief experts. The United States is conducting a military exercise with Thailand and has 11,000 troops in the area and several ships off the coast.

Ms. Villarosa said the government had also rebuffed teams from China, Bangladesh, Singapore, Thailand and other countries.

At the United Nations on Tuesday, concerns emerged that some of the aid meant for victims of the cyclone was being diverted to people who did not need it.

“That concern exists,” a United Nations spokeswoman, Michel Montas, said at a regular news conference, according to Reuters.

“We don’t have any independent report of a specific portion of the aid going to other sectors besides the victims,” Ms. Montas said, adding that that “it is a fact that a very small percentage of victims have so far received the aid.”

The British ambassador to the United Nations, John Sawers, said Britain had also received unconfirmed reports that aid was being redirected away from disaster victims.

“If they do turn out to be true, we would be very concerned indeed,” Reuters quoted him as saying. He added, “This just underlines the necessity of the Burmese authorities’ accepting that their own capacity to distribute aid to 1.5 million people” is insufficient.

In a report from Yangon, the official news agency of China, Myanmar’s friend and neighbor, said international aid had been arriving in Myanmar since last week, with aircraft landing at the airport one after another. The Chinese reports made no mention of delays.

On Monday, several medical teams from the Swiss-based branch of Doctors Without Borders were ordered out of the Irrawaddy Delta with no explanation.

Andrew Kirkwood, country director in Myanmar for Save the Children, said he had surveyed the delta by air in recent days and had concluded that trucks and helicopters would not be enough to deliver the aid needed by the people affected by the storm. The Myanmar government reportedly has five working helicopters.

“It’s clear that the vast majority of people will have to be reached by boat,” he said.

He said his teams in the delta had seen no outbreaks of cholera yet, although he expected other diseases and diarrhea to start taking their toll soon, especially on children.

“Children can die within 24 hours from diarrhea,” he said, “and delivery of oral rehydration solution is one of the things we’ve prioritized. Water is not enough. It has to be water, sugar and salt, in the right combination.”

He said Save the Children rented two boats from private owners and in the past two days delivered 200 tons of rice, water and rehydration fluids to a remote, storm-smashed island. He said that aid reached 9,400 people living in 13 villages, including 2,350 children.

Reports of rampant infections, caused by infected cuts, were starting to reach aid offices in Yangon, as well as many cases of wind burns.

The United Nations secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, said Monday that he had been trying to reach the country’s senior leadership to ask for greater access for aid delivery, but without success.

John Holmes, the under secretary general for emergency relief, said less than half of more than 100 visa applications for relief workers had been approved.

A journalist for The New York Times reported from Yangon. Seth Mydans contributed reporting from Bangkok, Warren Hoge from the United Nations, and Denise Grady from New York.

A journalist for The New York Times reported from Yangon. Seth Mydans contributed reporting from Bangkok, Warren Hoge from the United Nations, and Denise Grady from New York.

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