Burma cyclone aid starts amid hunger fears

Disease, hunger and thirst pose a major threat to hundreds of thousands of survivors of Cyclone Nargis, aid agencies said on Wednesday, urging Burma’s military rulers to open the doors to international humanitarian relief.

With 22 500 dead and 41 000 missing, most of them from a massive storm surge that washed over the Irrawaddy delta, it is the most devastating cyclone to hit Asia since 1991, when 143 000 people died in neighbouring Bangladesh.

“Time is of the essence,” Ann Veneman, executive director of the United Nations children’s fund Unicef, said in a statement. “In situations such as these, children are highly vulnerable to disease and hunger and they need immediate help to survive.”

Aid officials estimate hundreds of thousands are homeless in the swamplands of the delta south-west of the biggest city Rangoon, which was also hard hit by last weekend’s storm.

State-run television, the main official source for the number of casualties, on Wednesday re-broadcast Tuesday night’s news bulletin. The TV station, monitored outside Burma, reported just under 22 500 killed and 41 000 missing.

Aid groups and governments, including United States President George Bush, have urged the secretive military to relax their tight grip to allow humanitarian assistance into the country, which has been ruled by the military for 46 years.

In a rare news conference on Tuesday, Information Minister Kyaw Hsan appealed for help, saying “the government needs the cooperation of the people and well-wishers from home and abroad”.

Long queues

A queue of women and children holding buckets and tubs snaked around a corner in Rangoon on Wednesday, past a street market where vegetables sold at three times last week’s prices despite government appeals to traders not to profit from the disaster.

The overall mood in the city of five million was of resignation rather than revolution, but some anger on the streets at soaring food prices and long queues for petrol.

“There won’t be demonstrations,” one taxi driver said.
“People don’t want to be shot.”

Last September, the military violently cracked down on Buddhist monk-led demonstrations. The junta has been vilified by Western governments for suppressing dissent.

The UN’s World Food Programme began doling out rice in Rangoon. The first batch of more than $10-million of foreign aid arrived from Thailand but lack of equipment slowed distribution.

Two more aid flights are due to land from India early on Wednesday.

“The food security situation in the country, which was already severe, is likely to become more acute,” the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said in its most recent assessment of the disaster.

France said the former Burma’s ruling generals were still placing too many conditions on aid.

“The United Nations is asking the Burmese government to open its doors. The Burmese government replies: ‘Give us money, we’ll distribute it.’ We can’t accept that,” Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner told parliament.

Rashid Khalikov, a senior UN aid official, appealed to Burma to waive visa requirements for UN aid workers trying to get into the country of 53-million.

Reflecting the scale of the crisis, the junta said it would postpone by two weeks a constitutional referendum in the worst-hit areas. The referendum, part of the army’s much-criticized “roadmap to democracy”, would proceed as planned elsewhere on Saturday. - Reuters

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