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BURMA: UN Aid Arrives, But Many Doors Still Closed

Arlene Chang

UNITED NATIONS, May 9 2008 (IPS) - As the first U.N. relief planes landed in Yangon early on Thursday, humanitarian officials complained that the aid flowing into cyclone-devastated Burma (Myanmar) is still encountering bureaucratic obstacles that are threatening the lives of desperate survivors.

UN Emergency Relief Coordinator John Holmes holds press conference on Burma.  Credit: UN Photo/Mark Garten

UN Emergency Relief Coordinator John Holmes holds press conference on Burma. Credit: UN Photo/Mark Garten

The official government death toll from the cyclone is 22,997, but Western diplomats in the country and others have given far higher estimates, perhaps exceeding 100,000.

On Friday, the World Food Programme announced that it was suspending further relief because the government had "confiscated" all the food aid and equipment that had been delivered to the country thus far.

Just two days previously, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon welcomed the news that U.N. aid officials would be allowed into Burma. But as of Thursday, only two of the four disaster assessment and coordination team members had been permitted into Yangon and many other aid officials were still awaiting clearance to enter the country.

"There has been a limited amount of progress since yesterday, but not as much as we need or as we were hoping," John Holmes, under-secretary- general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator for Burma, said Thursday. "Frustration has been growing that the humanitarian response has been held back because of difficulty of access."

Holmes said that the situation was becoming "increasingly desperate" on the ground, with thousands of square kilometres still underwater and an estimated 1.5 million people affected by Cyclone Nargis, which hit the country almost a week ago.

"There is a real danger that a worse tragedy may unfold if we cannot get the aid, desperately needed, in quickly," he said.

Early Thursday, four World Food Programme (WFP) planes flew into Yangon, carrying 47 metric tonnes of high energy biscuits and 25 metric tonnes of emergency response equipment. The chartered aircraft came from Thailand, Bangladesh, the United Arab Emirates and Italy. However, officials said the distribution of food may take a few days to begin. And it now appears that the government has seized the supplies.

The Burmese government has resisted relief workers and non-governmental organisations seeking entry into the country, with the Foreign Ministry saying it has "prioritised receiving emergency relief provisions and is making strenuous efforts to transport those provisions without delay by its own labours to the affected areas."

"Two members of the disaster assessment and coordination team are now in Yangon," Holmes said. "Two others were not allowed to enter when they arrived, for reasons we are still trying to establish. A lot of visas are still pending. The numbers are difficult to establish, but we know that there are at least 40 applications in and around Bangkok."

Holmes said that the visas had not been rejected but the applications were taking longer than they should. "The (Burmese) authorities have not given an explanation as to what their concerns are. They have not refused entry as such. But they have not facilitated access in a way that we have a right to expect," he said.

UNICEF, which has 130 staff members on the ground, was hoping to add another 10-12 aid workers to the team. But they too are waiting for visa approval.

"We are fortunate to have had people to help soon after the cyclone hit," said Patrick McCormick, a spokesperson for the U.N. children&#39s agency. "Now we need to bring in more experts, aid workers and people for logistical support via Bangkok, but at this point they are all waiting for their visas to be granted."

UNICEF is in the process of sending 3 million water purification tablets to Burma, enough to provide clean water to 200,000 people for a week. The agency is also distributing emergency supplies, including family health kits, water purifying solutions, oral rehydration salts and bleaching drums. It is also purchasing, locally and from abroad, tenting, plastic material and tarpaulins to set up emergency shelters for those who have lost their homes.

Government authorities had agreed to waive custom charges and clearances for aid deliveries, Holmes said on Thursday. But he added that it was not clear whether that policy was fully operational on the ground. "We are in close touch with Myanmar authorities and pressing hard for more cooperation, more facilitation and for much greater ease of access," he said. "I have to say I am disappointed by the slow progress."

He also warned that the thousands of unburied dead bodies could become a serious health hazard.

"One concern is the corpses that are going to be around. They need to be managed, dealt with, buried, or quickly disposed of because of the threat to health. And that is one of our most urgent worries at the moment," Holmes said.

Meanwhile, the U.N. secretary-general said Thursday that he was "deeply concerned about the welfare of the people of Myanmar at this time of national tragedy" and that Burma&#39s ruling military junta, which has decided to proceed with a national constitutional referendum on Saturday, should "focus instead on mobilising all available resources and capacity for the emergency response efforts."

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