World Anger Mounts at Burmese Delays in Cyclone Disaster


Aid stymied off Myanmar shores and borders

Published: May 18, 2008



International Herald Tribune

BANGKOK: International outrage grew over the weekend as the military junta in Myanmar continued to block most humanitarian aid two weeks after a devastating cyclone and aid groups warned of a steep increase in deaths from starvation and disease.

With French and U.S. naval ships waiting off the coast with supplies, helicopters and boats and with relief agencies stymied in Thailand, the French ambassador, Jean-Maurice Ripert, said the junta’s intransigence could lead to a “true crime against humanity.”

The junta has allowed in a modest amount of supplies from a number of nations and relief agencies, but aid workers say it is far short of what is needed to fend off starvation and disease. The United Nations says only 20 percent of the survivors have received even rudimentary aid.

Fearing an influx of foreigners, the generals have tightened their grip on relief organizations, expelling foreigners – including humanitarian aid workers – from the hardest-hit area, the Irrawaddy Delta.

The United Nations estimates that as many as 2.5 million people are in urgent need of aid. The official death toll rose this weekend to 78,000, but UN estimates put it at more than 100,000.

The junta’s leader, Senior General Than Shwe, has refused to take phone calls and failed to answer two letters, prompting the UN secretary general, Ban Ki Moon, to send his chief of humanitarian affairs to try to deliver his message in person.

The 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which includes Myanmar, has called an emergency meeting of its foreign ministers on Monday in Singapore to hear a report from the Myanmar government. But the association has had little influence on the junta over the years, and its members have said little in condemnation of the handling of the cyclone.

The junta has accepted assistance from what it considers more friendly neighbors. Thailand has been permitted to send a 32-member medical team, and India has sent 50 army doctors and paramedics, along with medical supplies. But it was unclear whether they would be permitted into the delta.

At the same time, France and the United States were standing by with supplies on ships off the southwestern shore. France said that a navy ship was waiting Saturday about 25 kilometers, or 15 miles, outside Myanmar’s territorial waters with 1,000 tons of food – enough to feed 100,000 people for 15 days. The aid also includes shelters for 15,000 people, the French government said.

A number of U.S. Navy warships are also in the waters off Myanmar. The U.S. ships carry amphibious landing craft that can carry personnel and supplies to remote locations inaccessible by road.

U.S. military officials insist that this assistance comes with no strings attached and that American forces will leave as soon as the aid mission is over.

Over the past week, the junta has allowed a modest American airlift via Thailand with supplies like water, blankets, hygiene kits, insecticide-treated bed nets to protect against malaria, plastic sheeting for shelter, food and medical supplies.

“There is absolutely more we could do, if only the Burmese government would permit us to do it,” Geoff Morrell, the Pentagon press secretary, said in Washington.

The absence of UN approval for ferrying food, medicine and shelter into Myanmar has left the Bush administration in a bind. To avert a humanitarian catastrophe, the administration is having to tiptoe, so as not to offend the junta that Washington has condemned in the past, lest the junta put an end to the anemic flow of aid it has allowed so far.

Even discussions about whether to pursue sanctions against Myanmar in the United Nations have been put on hold, a senior administration official said, because “we have to balance the need for further political pressure against what little progress were making on the ground.”

President George W. Bush and the first lady, Laura Bush, have both been personally engaged in the Myanmar issue, administration officials said, but one official said that there was no single high-ranking official who had taken charge of U.S. response to the cyclone.

In an attempt to show that it has the situation under control, the Myanmar government flew 60 diplomats on a guided tour of the disaster area on Saturday. The diplomats said that they were shown pristine campsites that seemed to have been put in order especially for them.

“These guys are xenophobic,” Shari Villarosa, a senior diplomat at the U.S. Embassy in Yangon, said in a recent interview, referring to the military leadership. “They don’t like foreigners.”

Warren Hoge contributed reporting from New York, and an International Herald Tribune staff member contributed reporting from Yangon.

World Anger Mounts at Burmese Delays in Cyclone Disaster


Offers of aid and expertise for Burma have poured in from around the worldWorld frustration with the Burmese regime’s slow response to the cyclone disaster boiled over Saturday with France accusing it of being on the verge of committing a crime against humanity by not accepting foreign aid.

Offers of aid and expertise for Burma have poured in from around the world

Jean-Maurice Ripert told a meeting of all members of the United Nations on Saturday that the situation in Burma, also known as Myanmar, was turning “slowly from a situation of not helping people in danger to a real risk of crimes against humanity.””Hundreds of thousands of lives are in jeopardy and we think that the primary responsibility of the government of Myanmar (Burma) is to help and open the borders so that the international aid could come into the place,” Ripert said.

There are fears of famine and starvation among the cyclone survivors

There are fears of famine and starvation among the cyclone survivorsThe French UN ambassador was reacting to comments by Burma’s UN ambassador, accusing France of sending a warship to region.

France says the ship is carrying 1,500 tonnes of food and medicine for survivors of Cyclone Nargis. The French vessel — which is equipped with three helicopters — is carrying enough food to sustain 100,000 people for two weeks and tents and tarpaulin sheets to provide shelter to 60,000 homeless people.

“Inhuman treatment”

French frustration at the Burmese military regime’s slow-moving response to the cyclone catastrophe which has claimed 78,000 lives, according to Burmese state TV, was echoed by leaders and governments across the world on Saturday.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown denounced the junta’s “inhuman” treatment of around two million survivors battling to stay alive two weeks after the storm hit.

“We have an intolerable situation created by a natural disaster,” Brown, whose country was the colonial power when Myanmar was known as Burma, told the BBC.

“It is being made into a man-made catastrophe by the negligence, the neglect and the inhuman treatment of the Burmese people by a regime that is failing to act and to allow the international community to do what it wants to do.”

Nobel Peace Prize winner Desmond Tutu wrote to Brown, Bush and French President Nicolas Sarkozy, calling on the UN Security Council to authorize aid drops over the objections of the generals.

He said the regime had “effectively declared war on its own population and is committing crimes against humanity.”

Fears of famine

The international community has been turning up the pressure on the country’s military rulers, who have been criticized for holding up visas for foreign disaster experts and insisting on managing the relief effort alone.

The EU’s humanitarian aid chief Louis Michel has warned there is a risk of famine because of the scope of the destruction in the rice-growing Irrawady Delta which was the worst hit by the cyclone and where entire villages have been wiped away.

Wary of any foreign influence that could weaken its 46 years of iron rule in Myanmar, Burma’s military junta has insisted on managing the operation itself and kept most international disaster experts away.

But aid groups say the government cannot possibly handle the tragedy by itself, with hundreds of tons of supplies and high-tech equipment piling up in warehouses, bottle-necked by logistics and other problems.

Incomplete picture

Faced with mounting criticism, the junta flew some diplomats and aid workers Saturday into the heart of the disaster zone — which has been all but sealed off to the outside world.

“What they showed us looked very good,” said Chris Kaye, Myanmar director for the UN’s World Food Programme. “But they are not showing us the whole picture.”

One diplomat told AFP: “It was like a steam-roller had gone through the entire delta region.”

The junta has blocked journalists from getting to the southern Irrawaddy Delta and there are reports of patchy relief efforts by the Burmese military to get relief supplies to survivors.

US President George W Bush has extended sanctions on Myanmar by another year because of its “large-scale repression of the democratic opposition.” 

DW staff / wire reports (sp)


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