UN Admits Losses to Myanmar Junta Through Currency Exchange, NGOs Skirt with Hawala

Byline: Matthew Russell Lee of Inner City Press at the UN: News Analysis

UNITED NATIONS, July 11 — The question is not “if” but “how much” money Myanmar’s military government has taken from the UN aid that has come into the country since Cyclone Nargis hit, it emerged Friday at the UN. John Holmes, the UN Humanitarian Coordinator, told Inner City Press that some level of loss would be acceptable in exchanging dollars for government-issued Foreign Exchange Certificates, which are in turn converted into the local currency, Kyat. “One percent would probably be okay,” he said. Video here, from Minute 37:50.

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Burma aid: Conference pledges millions of pounds

Burma aid: Conference pledges millions of pounds

The UN chief, Ban Ki-moon, said today he hoped Burma had reached “a turning point” in getting help to its cyclone survivors after an international aid conference pledged million of pounds in assistance.

The meeting came as supporters of the democratically elected leader of Burma, Aung San Suu Kyi, have been speculating that the ruling junta is planning an easing of her house arrest conditions or even a release, as part of its concessions to huge international pressure.

Three weeks after Cyclone Nargis swept through Burma killing an estimated 134,000 people and leaving millions homeless, Ban struck a hopeful note at the start of the one-day meeting in the Burmese capital, Rangoon, attended by representatives from more than 50 nations. Continue reading

UN suspends aid flights to Myanmar

UN suspends aid flights to Myanmar

Aileen McCabe – Asia Correspondent ,  Canwest News Service

Published: Friday, May 09, 2008

BANGKOK – The United Nations suspended aid flights to Myanmar on Friday after the military government imposed “unacceptable” restrictions on relief efforts for 1.5 million victim cyclone victims.
The junta seized two aid deliveries at Yangon airport, apparently determined to distribute supplies on its own.

The shipments of 38 tonnes of high-energy biscuits – enough to feed 95,000 people – were to be trucked to the Irrawaddy delta where most of the victims of the devastating cyclone need help.

“We’re going to have to shut down our very small airlift operation until we get guarantees from the authorities that we’ll be able to have the food when it arrives,” UN World Food Program regional director Tony Banbury told CNN.

Workers and soldiers unload relief goods sent by Japan, meant for survivors of Cyclone Nargis, at an airport in Yangon in this May 7, 2008.

Workers and soldiers unload relief goods sent by Japan, meant for survivors of Cyclone Nargis, at an airport in Yangon in this May 7, 2008.

“I am furious. It is unacceptable.”

The UN’s move came after the juntas said it will accept international aid, but not foreign aid workers.
Its position is “unprecedented in the modern humanitarian relief effort,” according to the United Nations.

The state-controlled New Light of Myanmar newspaper published a statement from the Foreign Ministry saying: “Currently Myanmar has prioritized receiving relief provisions and making strenuous effort delivering it with its own labour.”

It said the government was grateful for the foreign aid that has arrived, but it underlined the best way for the foreign community to help is to send food, water and supplies, not expert emergency teams.

That message was reinforced by pictures on national television of soldiers distributing aid and helping care for the injured at a clinic.

A disaster relief team from Qatar that arrived on an aid flight Thursday was refused permission to stay.
The prime minister of Thailand cancelled a planned trip to Myanmar this weekend.

“After they said today they would not welcome foreign staff, there is no point of me going there,” said Samak Sundaravej who had been urged by the United States and Britain to try and open the doors.
Intense international criticism after the brutal crackdown on the peaceful demonstrations led by Buddhist monks last fall went totally unheeded.

So far, 11 plane loads and two boat loads of supplies have arrived in Myanmar, sent by the United Nations, the Red Cross, Thailand, India and China. But it is nowhere near enough to deal with the 1.5 million people the UN now estimate are “severely affected,” many of whom have been without safe drinking water and food since Cyclone Nargis cut a path of destruction through the southeast Asian country last weekend. Indeed, the UN says help has reached only about 276,000 people so far.

Nearly $40 million US_in aid, including $2 million from Canada, has been pledged worldwide to help deal with the crisis in Myanmar. But the regime’s intransigence means it is almost totally stalled. Some supplies are building up in warehouses around the region, waiting for clearance to be delivered.

Much more is on-hold until governments around the world are satisfied their donations will actually reach the needy, not line the coffers of the isolated regime that rules over them.

The government now estimates up to 23,000 were killed by winds gusting more than 200 km/h and the 3.5-metre wave that followed. But Shari Villarosa, the senior U.S. diplomat in Yangon, formerly Rangoon, says the number is likely closer to 100,000.

Noeleen Heyzer, the UN’s top official in the Asia Pacific, warned the junta Friday that time was running out for getting help to the people affected by the cyclone.

“The situation is getting critical and there is only a small window of opportunity if we are to avert the spread of diseases that could multiply the already tragic number of casualties,” she said.

Heyzer called on the generals to waive visa requirements for UN humanitarian workers “so that aid can reach the people as quickly as possible.”

Canada added its voice to calls for access and said it is ready to send the disaster assistance response team to help cope with the crisis. The advance team is on the way to the region now in hopes visas will soon become available.

“The window of opportunity to save lives and alleviate suffering is rapidly closing. We cannot afford to wait any longer,” Foreign Affairs Minister Maxime Bernier said.

Paul Risley, from the World Food Progam, gave reporters an example of why outside experts are crucial in this kind of situation. He said that among the supplies that have been delivered to Myanmar so far, are six portable warehouses that can be used as food depots for the incoming aid. It usually takes trained technicians 12 hours to set one up, he said. The Myanmar military, doing it for the first time, will take “days” to assemble them, he predicted.

Meanwhile, some of the aid that has trickled into the country made it down to the Irrawaddy Delta on Friday. Known as the country’s rice bowl, the isolated area suffered the brunt of the cyclone and much of it is still under water.

The BBC, which is one of the few news organizations that has managed to get into Myanmar, reported that soldiers arrived in trucks and buses to distribute the first food to people who have been living in the rough for a full week.

It was not nearly enough, the BBC said, given the scale of destruction.

It also said fears of disease aggravating the situation are not unfounded and that dysentery already appears to be setting in among the survivors.

Despite the fact the country is in crisis, Myanmar’s generals are set to go ahead with a referendum Saturday on a new constitution, at least in areas untouched by Nargis. They claim the vote is a step towards democracy.

Experts say it is a sham.

One diplomat said privately that the regime feels more confident of victory now that a low turnout is almost guaranteed.

UN suspends aid flights to Myanmar

 Latest figures suggest that more than a million people are in need of aid [AFP]

The UN’s main humanitarian agency says that the Myanmar military government has seized all the food and equipment that the WFP had flown into country to assist the victims of Cyclone Nargis.

Paul Risley, a spokesman for the World Food Programme office in Bangkok, Thailand, said on Friday the WFP “has no choice” but to suspend further aid shipments until the matter is resolved.

“The food aid and equipment that we managed to get in has been confiscated,” he said.

The shipment included 38 tonnes of high-energy biscuits.


Risley said it is not clear why the material was taken. It is also not clear if the shipment seized was the one that was flown in on Thursday or another one.

Mounting frustration


Underscoring mounting frustration over the military government’s response to the cyclone crisis, Risley called Myanmar‘s refusal to grant visas to foreign aid teams “unprecedented in modern humanitarian relief efforts”.

He said the organisation had submitted applications for visas with Myanmar diplomatic missions around the world, but all had been caught up in paperwork.



Some relief supplies have been allowed to land in Myanmar, but many more tonnes of aid and dozens of expert foreign staff have not, leaving hundreds of thousands of survivors at risk of hunger and disease.


Al Jazeera’s correspondent, who is in the Irrawaddy delta, found 500 refugees crowded into a Catholic school, all of them with injuries sustained when the storm hit.


“Most of them arrived in the village naked, they had no food, they had no shelter,” she said.


“Now the church is relying on local people in the community to give rice, to give clean water, to give clothes to these people.”


Myanmar’s government has said the confirmed toll stands at 22,980 with more than 42,000 others missing.


The UN has estimated that more than a million people have been made homeless.


US ‘outraged’


On Thursday Zalmay Khalilzad, the US ambassador at the UN, expressed outrage at Myanmar’s government for its foot-dragging on allowing in international relief teams in the wake of the Cyclone Nargis disaster.


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Khalilzad said in New York that the US was “outraged by the slowness of the response of the government of Burma to welcome and accept assistance”.


“It’s clear that the government’s ability to deal with the situation, which is catastrophic, is limited … and since it’s not able to you would expect the government to welcome assistance from others,” he said.


“We’re shocked by the behaviour of the government.”


Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary-general, has called on the ruling generals to postpone a referendum due on Saturday on the country’s constitution.


Myanmar’s military government indicated on Friday that while it wanted relief supplies, foreign aid personnel were not being called for.


A foreign ministry statement said the government had given priority to receiving aid from abroad but using its own nationals to deliver it to stricken areas.

The government turned back aid workers and media who arrived on a flight from Qatar carrying emergency supplies on Thursday because they had not been given permission to enter the country, the ministry said.


The threat of disease and starvation
looms large as aid is slow to arrive [AFP]



The government allowed in the first major international aid shipment on Thursday but turned away American aid.


Four WFP aircraft carrying high-energy biscuits, medicine and other supplies reached Yangon on Thursday, UN officials said.


Relief supplies from Myanmar’s neighbours China, India and Bangladesh have also landed.


However, two of four UN experts who flew in to assess the damage were turned back at the airport for unknown reasons, said John Holmes, the UN relief co-ordinator.



“I am disappointed that we have not had more results,” Holmes told reporters on Thursday.


“We need to continue to urge the government to co-operate,” he said.


‘Increasingly desperate’


Many residents remain without food and shelter, while corpses rotting in the flood waters are creating a health hazard.



Describing the situation in Myanmar as “increasingly desperate on the ground”, Holmes said Ban Ki-moon, the UN chief, was trying to talk to Than Shwe, Myanmar’s military leader, to urge him to “strongly to facilitate access” for foreign relief workers.


“They have opened up to some extent. They have not refused entry [to foreign aid workers]. But they have not facilitated entry… It is not as open as it should be,” he said.


But the UN official rejected criticism that he had not been more forceful in pressing Myanmar.


“I do not believe confrontation with the government is likely to result in more help” for the cyclone victims, Holmes said.


Holmes added that the authorities also agreed that customs charges and clearances should be waived for aid delivery, but said it was unclear if the policy had been implemented.


At least 40 visa applications from UN aid workers are pending and many others are waiting in Thailand to enter.




Among those stranded were 10 members of a USAID disaster response team.


Eric John, the US ambassador to Thailand, told reporters in Bangkok on Thursday that the US was “in a long line of nations who are ready, willing and able to help, but also, of course, in a long line of nations the Burmese don’t trust”.

“It’s more than frustrating. It’s a tragedy,” he said.


John said each day of delay meant “a lot more people suffering”.


 A US state department official earlier hinted that it was considering dropping food aid over parts of the disaster zones, without Myanmar’s approval.


But the Pentagon said it would not consider such a move without the Myanmar government’s permission.


Aside from violating Myanmar’s airspace, the US authorities worry that such an unauthorised operation might fail to deliver the airdropped supplies to those most in need.



Robert Gates, the US defence secretary, said the US needed permission from the government but US air force transport aircraft packed with supplies and US navy ships in the area are all ready to enter if permission is granted.


With the Irrawaddy delta’s roads washed out and the infrastructure in shambles, large areas are accessible only by air.


Tim Costello, chief executive of World Vision Australia, said that “it’s certainly the case that the Americans, as they showed in the tsunami, have extraordinary capacity”.


During the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, US helicopters from the USS Abraham Lincoln flew missions to isolated communities along the Indonesian coast in the biggest US military operation in South-East Asia since the Vietnam War.


Samak Sundaravej, Thailand‘s prime minister, has offered to negotiate on Washington‘s behalf to persuade Myanmar’s government to accept US assistance.


Intervention urged


France is arguing that the UN has the power to intervene without the Myanmar government’s approval to help civilians under a 2005 agreement that the world body has a “responsibility to protect” people when governments fail to do it.


That agreement did not mention natural disasters.



The foreign ministers of France, Britain and Germany have urged Myanmar’s leaders to let foreign aid into the country.


In a joint letter in Le Monde newspaper, Bernard Kouchner, the French foreign minister, and David Miliband, his British counterpart, urged Myanmar’s leaders to “lift all restrictions on the distribution of aid”.


Aid commitments to Myanmar




United Nations: Will release a minimum of $10m, launching a “flash appeal” to raise much more money.


International Red Cross: $189,000. Relief workers distributing drinking water, clothing, food, plastic tarpaulins and hygiene kits.


Myanmar Red Cross: 5 billion kyats ($4.5m) for relief and resettlement work. Distributing insecticide-treated bed nets and water purification tablets.


Australian World Vision: $2.8m for first month of relief operations.




European Commission: $3m for fast-track humanitarian aid.


US: $3m, up from initial $250,000 immediate emergency aid.


China: $500,000 in cash; materials including tents, blankets and biscuits worth a further $500,000.


India: Two naval ships loaded with food, tents, blankets, clothing and medicines sent to Yangon.


Japan: $267,570 worth of emergency aid in tents, power generators and other supplies.


Australia: Initial $2.8m in emergency aid, with $1m going to aid agencies to help provide shelter, water purification and food.


Thailand: Transport plane loaded with food and medicine sent to Yangon.


(All figures in US$)

An estimated one million people have been left homeless and 100,000 may have been killed by the cyclone, according to a US diplomat in the former capital, Yangon, but the government plans to press ahead with the referendum on a new constitution critics say is an attempt by the generals to entrench their rule.

In depth: Myanmar cyclone


Witness: ‘Utter devastation’

Millions displaced

Lessons from Aceh

Generals’ grip threatened

Storm smashes Myanmar ‘rice bowl’

Disease stalks cyclone survivors

Generals ignore calls to delay polls

Map: Cyclone’s deadly path

Satellite photos:
Before and after

Timeline: Asia’s worst storms

Picture gallery

How you can help

Watch 101 East: Crisis in Myanmar

Earlier, Mark Canning, Britain’s ambassador to Myanmar, told Al Jazeera that the relief operation for Myanmar is likely to be twice the size needed in Aceh province in Indonesia, after the 2004 tsunami.

“The scale of this catastrophe is becoming clearer all the time. The official death toll is around 23,000. But I’m afraid it’s going to escalate dramatically in the coming days,” he said.

“There are between one and one and a half million people who are thought to be vulnerable. The conditions are horrendous. So you’re talking about an aid operation that is I think about twice the size of the Aceh relief operation. Some aid is getting through. Some UN and other flights, some World Food Programme convoys, are getting through. But they’re not getting through fast enough, not in the volume that is needed.”


Source: Al Jazeera and agencies