Tuesday, May 13, 2008

*extracted from straitstimes.com

Myanmar rejects US, UN pressure on aid

YANGON - MYANMAR'S military rulers on Tuesday rejected growing international pressure to accept aid workers, insisting against all the evidence that it had the emergency cyclone relief effort under control.
Even as US President George W. Bush and UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon voiced their fury at the country's generals, and aid agencies again warned that time was running out, the regime remained defiant about letting in outsiders.

'The nation does not need skilled relief workers yet,' Vice-Admiral Soe Thein said in the New Light of Myanmar newspaper, a mouthpiece for the military which has ruled the nation with an iron grip for nearly half a century.

He said the needs of the people following the storm, which has left around 62,000 dead or missing since ripping through the southern Irrawaddy delta on May 2, 'have been fulfilled to an extent'.

A stream of other aid flights had already landed in Yangon, but only a fraction of the help needed has got to people in the flooded delta, partly because the junta has kept foreign aid and logistics experts out of the country or in Yangon. -- PHOTO: AFP

But aid agencies tell a starkly different story, warning that as every day passes without sufficient food, water and shelter, as many as two million people are at risk of adding to the already staggering death toll.

Just hours after the United States sent its first aid plane into the country since the tragedy - following days of negotiations - Mr Bush said the world should 'be angry and condemn' the junta.

'Either they are isolated or callous,' he said. 'There's no telling how many people have lost their lives as a result of the slow response.'

The United States has long been one of the most vocal critics of the regime, repeatedly tightening sanctions on Myanmar over its refusal to shift towards democracy or release opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest.

But Mr Ban Ki Moon also took aim at the junta, using unusually strong language for a UN chief to insist that outside aid experts be allowed in immediately to help direct the fumbling relief effort.

'I want to register my deep concern and immense frustration on the unacceptably slow response to this grave humanitarian crisis,' Mr Ban told a news conference at UN headquarters in New York.

'We are at a critical point. Unless more aid gets into the country very quickly, we face an outbreak of infectious diseases that could dwarf today's current crisis,' he said.

'I therefore call in the most strenuous terms on the government of Myanmar to put its people's lives first. It must do all it can to prevent this disaster from becoming even more serious.'

The country has welcomed donations of aid, even from the United States, which sent in its first planeload of supplies on Monday and said that two more military transporters would follow Tuesday.

But the generals remain deeply suspicious of the outside world and fearful of any outside influence which could weaken their control on every aspect of life in this poor and isolated nation, formerly known as Burma.

Aid groups insist that only specialists with long experience of disaster zones can ensure that the neediest get the aid they need - and navigate that aid through scenes of almost total destruction.

US military gets approval for more aid flights
Myanmar has agreed to allow more United States military flights carrying humanitarian aid into the cyclone-devastated country, opening the door to what could be a massive relief operation, officials said.

A second aid flight left Utapao Air Base in Thailand on Tuesday, and another was to leave later in the day, said US Marine Lieutenant-Colonel Douglas Powell.

Lt-Col Powell said the first flight on Tuesday carried 9,025 kilogrammes of blankets, water and mosquito nets. The second was to take in a 11,225-kilogramme load. The two flights come after Myanmar allowed an Air Force C-130 cargo plane into its main city, Yangon, on Monday.

Lt-Col Powell said the situation remains fluid, but flights were expected to continue after Tuesday. It appeared to broaden the original agreement for three flights on Monday and Tuesday.

Lt-Col Powell said a Boeing 747 aircraft arrived in Utapao on Monday night to replenish the supplies available to fly in to Myanmar.

Though the flights are military, the aid aboard them is being provided by civilian relief authorities.

Admiral Timothy J. Keating, commander of the US Pacific Forces, flew into Myanmar on the initial aid flight on Monday to try to persuade the junta to relent.

Adm Keating came back later on Monday with an understanding only that Myanmar would consider the offer.

However, Myanmar state television said navy commander in chief Rear-Admiral Soe Thein told Adm Keating that basic needs of the storm victims are being fulfilled and that 'skillful humanitarian workers are not necessary'.

Adm Keating said the US military could provide 90,720 kilogrammes of supplies a day, which would be a massive boost to the lagging relief efforts. The military could also ferry aid workers to the hardest-hit regions, which remain hard to reach.

The operation has already been named - Joint Task Force Caring Relief. But officials say they will not push ahead without the approval of Myanmar's military rulers, who have so far refused a broad range of help offers because they fear foreign meddling in their domestic affairs.

That stance - as bodies remain scattered around the countryside and hundreds of thousands of refugees are in need of food and shelter - has generated howls of criticism from around the world.

'Let them in,' US Ambassador to Thailand Eric John said on Monday. 'Let them save lives.' -- AP

US concerned as its aid leaves Yangon airport

WASHINGTON - THE United States will send two more aid flights to cyclone-stricken Myanmar and offer US$13 million (S$18 million) more in aid through United Nations agencies even though United States officials involved in the relief effort have not been allowed beyond Yangon airport, US officials said.

As the first US aid flight arrived in Myanmar on Monday, US President George W. Bush condemned the country's military junta for failing to act more quickly to accept international help after Cyclone Nargis devastated the country, saying 'either they are isolated or callous'.

'It's been days and no telling how many people have lost their lives as a result of the slow response,' Mr Bush said in a radio interview with CBS News. 'An American plane finally went in but the response isn't good enough.'

Ms Henrietta Fore, administrator of the US Agency for International Development, and Admiral Timothy Keating, head of the US Pacific Command, flew to Myanmar on Monday with the first C-130 cargo planeload of US supplies, then watched as it was transferred to Myanmar helicopters they were told would fly to stricken areas, a US official said.

'While on the ground, Administrator Fore and Admiral Keating witnessed helicopters carrying the US cargo bound for Bogalay township,' Mr Ky Luu, director of USAid's Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance, told reporters.

Because US officials have serious concerns over whether the aid would reach cyclone victims, they will contact non-governmental organisations in Bogalay to verify the supplies in fact arrived there, he said.

At the White House, spokesman Dana Perino told reporters the United States would provide US$13 million in food and logistical assistance for UN World Food Program relief operations in the former Burma, bring the total US aid to US$16.25 million.

'We will send two flights of relief supplies tomorrow and then we'll take it one day at a time from there,' she said.

'It's a drop in a bucket for what they're going to need and we would hope that the Burmese junta would allow more flights to come in,' Ms Perino said, adding that the president was 'very concerned about it'.

Waiting for visas
The first US C-130 cargo plane that flew into Yangon from Thailand on Monday carried 8,300 bottles of water, 1,350 blankets and 10,800 mosquito nets, which will help as many as 30,000 people, Mr Luu told reporters at the State Department.

The United Nations says 1.5 million people are in need of immediate assistance from the cyclone, in which up to 100,000 people are feared dead.

Ms Fore, Adm Keating and Mr Bill Berger, the leader of a US disaster relief team that has been waiting unsuccessfully for a week to get visas for Myanmar, met Burmese authorities at the airport and urged them to 'open up access, to issue additional visas and to bring in additional supplies', Mr Luu added.

The Americans were at the airport for about two hours, he said.

'I think we have to stay optimistic on this,' Mr Luu said, while acknowledging that there was 'massive concern' about whether the aid would in fact reach cyclone victims.

While Myanmar's reclusive military government is accepting aid from the outside world, including the United Nations, it will not let in foreign logistics teams, who were queuing up in Bangkok hoping to get visas from the Myanmar Embassy.

US officials had been told last week that the Myanmar government 'would accept our commodities but not accept our disaster experts', Mr Luu said.

Adm Keating had said before taking off that he would urge the junta to allow a 'long, continuous train of flights' that could carry up to 90,720kg of relief goods a day.

The new assistance would include US$12 million for food aid that will arrive in the coming weeks, including 1,000 tonnes of urgently needed food from a US Aid Food for Peace warehouse in Djibouti in Eastern Africa, Ms Perino said. -- REUTERS


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