Thursday, May 22, 2008

Burma cyclone relief update

Although more assurances have been given by the Myanmar junta, the fact remains that cyclone relief effort is still not getting aid to the people who most desperately need it.

Following Monday's meeting of Southeast Asian leaders in Singapore, Myanmar apparently agreed that ASEAN countries should act as intermediaries, coordinating aid from the outside world. ASEAN will sponsor a "donor's conference" which will happen this weekend in Rangoon.

Apparently, the junta has agreed to allow the UN to use 10 helicopters to transport some of the food and supplies that have begun piling up in Rangoon. But a WSJ report suggests the helicopters may not be permitted to go where they are most needed:

The U.N.'s World Food Program welcomed the military's decision to allow ten helicopters -- which can each carry three tons of relief supplies -- to fly to Yangon, Myanmar's main city. Marcus Prior, a Bangkok-based spokesman for the WFP, cautioned that it wasn't clear whether the helicopters will be given unfettered access to remote areas of the low-lying Irrawaddy delta, which aid workers have had trouble reaching by truck and boat. "We're seeing considerable movement" from Myanmar's government, Mr. Prior said. "But the operating details still need to be worked out with the authorities."

One of the biggest problems is transporting the materials into the Irrawaddy Delta. Burma has been refusing entry into the Delta to foreign aid personnel. Also, the boats or helicopters needed to get the supplies to remote towns and away villages of the delta are in short supply. The above quoted WSJ report provides an update concerning this issue:

The WFP, which is coordinating the international aid response on the ground in Myanmar, has been allowed to set up two warehouses in the delta and has used boats and trucks to shuttle aid from Yangon.

But the military government has banned foreign aid workers from traveling to the delta, allowing only local employees of international non-governmental agencies to go there. It has also delayed the granting of visas to foreign disaster relief experts, many of whom are still waiting for approval in Bangkok. And it has so far blocked relief workers from using helicopters to reach the most remote areas of the delta, where many survivors are still without food, water and shelter almost three weeks after Cyclone Nargis struck land.

Meanwhile, an armada of vessels laden with food, water, tents, and emergency medical supplies waits just offshore Burma in international waters. In a previous post I wrote about the impressive French naval effort. An AP article describes the US naval response:

YANGON, Myanmar (AP) — Myanmar shunned a U.S. proposal for naval ships to deliver aid to cyclone victims on Wednesday, according to state-run media, dimming hopes that the vessels could provide a major boost to relief efforts.

The New Light of Myanmar, a mouthpiece for Myanmar's ruling junta, said that such assistance "comes with strings attached" that are "not acceptable to the people of Myanmar." It cited fears that Washington wants to overthrow the country's government and seize its oil.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who is set to fly to Yangon Thursday, urged Myanmar to focus on saving lives — not politics.

"We must do our utmost for the people of Myanmar" the U.N. chief told reporters after arriving in Bangkok, Thailand ahead of his trip to Myanmar. "The issues of assistance and aid in Myanmar should not be politicized. Our focus now is on saving lives."

The United States, as well as France and Great Britain, have naval vessels loaded with humanitarian supplies off the Myanmar coast, and had been waiting for a green light to deliver them. The article did not say whether the French and British supplies would be allowed.

The state media report said that other U.S. aid airlifted into the country was welcome, an apparent reference to ongoing relief flights, which land in the country about five times a day. American officials are required to hand the aid to Myanmar authorities upon landing in Yangon, from which it is a difficult journey to the Irrawaddy delta.

The four U.S. warships were seen as a major potential boost for the relief effort with the capacity to deliver supplies to inaccessible areas of the delta, with 14 helicopters, two landing craft vessels, two high-tech amphibious hovercraft and about 1,000 U.S. Marines.

The report gave no explanation why the regime was willing to accept aid flown on U.S. planes, with U.S. military personnel on board, but would not allow the warships and helicopters to deliver relief supplies.

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