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 Sunday 11 May 2008
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MYANMAR: Food aid shipments held as selective approach from government dismays aid workers

A map of Myanmar showing the areas estimated to be worst-affected by cyclone Nargis
BANGKOK, 9 May 2008 (IRIN) - Aid workers are dismayed at the limited and selective access provided to foeign relief for Myanmar. WFP has suspended its limited air cargo deliveries on 9 May, after two chartered plane loads of food aid were impounded in Yangon, according to Reuters. UPDATE: In a later statement from WFP headquarters, the agency said it would continue deliveries as negotiations continue over the two shipments.

“I’ve never seen an emergency situation such as this before,” said Greg Beck, Asia regional director of the International Rescue Committee. “A week after the disaster, the entire humanitarian community is still sitting in another country, outside the affected area, looking for means to access the disaster zone.”

The Myanmar government has said its policy is to welcome cash and aid in kind but not foreign relief teams and media crews, according to the BBC. Dozens of aid workers remain on standby in neighbouring Thailand and it is unclear how pledges of more than US$50 million will be spent.

Some relief flights have been able to land and unload cargo, according to UN reports. However, two of a four-person UN Disaster Assessment and Coordination team (UNDAC) were denied entry, according to John Holmes, the UN Emergency Relief Coordinator, speaking in New York on 8 May. Only a handful of foreigners have been allowed in so far, despite estimates of people in severe need rising to 1.5 million.

The insular regime remains unwilling to throw open the door to foreign aid workers, as Indonesia did after the 2004 tsunami. According to UN officials and NGO workers, authorities are seemingly trying to handpick relief workers, letting in some of those from Asian countries, while stalling visa applications of others.

“They seem to be open to us bringing in staff from nations which are part of the Association of South East Asian Nations [ASEAN], but less open to staff from non-ASEAN countries,” said Greg Duly, regional director of Save the Children, which was operating in Burma before the disaster and is now distributing relief.

Changing gears

Save the Children is one of several NGOs that, with UN agencies, have been running operations inside Myanmar for years - and which now have had to rapidly change gear and respond to the humanitarian crisis. Aid agencies in Myanmar employ well over 1,200 national staff, in addition to the national Red Cross, according to humanitarian sources. The UN Development Programme (UNDP) is asking its microfinance teams to try to deal with immediate crisis response, for example.

Duly said officials on the ground seem increasingly receptive to NGO help. “It isn’t black and white - this is a very opaque, constantly changing situation,” he said. “We are getting more cooperation now in-country than we were getting three days ago.”

That shift in attitude may reflect reportedly growing pressure on Myanmar from China and southeast Asian countries to cooperate with the international community. But he said, “it might be that they are appreciating better the full scale of the disaster”.

Risk of disease

With various reports of worsening conditions, survivors fighting over food, diarrhoea outbreaks and growing desperation, aid workers are warning that further delays will cost lives.

“Myanmar has got to open itself up to a major international effort very soon if we are not to face a second disaster, where infectious diseases and other problems start to take a significant toll,” said Richard Horsey, a UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) spokesman.

Eric John, the US ambassador to Thailand, also expressed chagrin at the Myanmar government’s reluctance to accept proffered help, although he said sluggish bureaucracy could be partly to blame. The US is clamouring to send in a Disaster Assistance Response Team, and has offered military equipment to help with logistics.

John said the US, which has been working with Thailand to try to push for access, thought it had received a green light on 8 May from the junta to use C-130 planes to ferry relief supplies.

But authorities later made clear this was not the case, though John said it was unclear whether the decision had been reversed or whether there had been a misunderstanding.

“It is very frustrating, if you look at the people’s suffering,” he said. “You have the tools at your fingertips to alleviate that suffering, and they are just not picking them up.”


Theme(s): (IRIN) Aid Policy, (IRIN) Food Security, (IRIN) Governance, (IRIN) Natural Disasters


[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]
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