/ 7 May 2008

UN: One million homeless in Burma

Aid was trickling in on Wednesday for an estimated one million victims of Cyclone Nargis in military-ruled Burma, with the death toll of more than 22 500 expected to mount.

France has suggested invoking a United Nations ”responsibility to protect” clause and delivering aid directly to Burma without waiting for approval from the military in Rangoon.

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner told reporters on Wednesday the idea was under discussion at the UN in New York.

”We are seeing at the United Nations if we can’t implement the responsibility to protect, given that food, boats and relief teams are there, and obtain a UN resolution which authorises the delivery [of aid] and imposes this on the Burmese government,” he said.

The United Nations recognised in 2005 the concept ”responsibility to protect” civilians when their governments could or would not do it, even if this meant intervention that violated national sovereignty.

Burma TV, the main official source for casualties and damage, had no fresh updates on Tuesday’s report that 22 464 were killed and 41 054 missing in Asia’s most devastating cyclone since a 1991 storm in neighbouring Bangladesh killed 143 000.

Richard Horsey of the UN Office of the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs told Reuters in Bangkok the death toll was expected to rise.

”With all those dead mostly floating in the water at this point you can get some idea of the conditions facing the teams on the ground. It’s a major logistical challenge,” Horsey said.

Governments and aid agencies around the world showed eagerness to help, but experts say Burma’s ruling military must overcome their distrust of the outside world and open up to a full-scale international relief operation.

Waiting for visas

Thailand, China, India and Indonesia were flying in relief supplies and the United States president and the prime minister of Australia appealed to the Burma government to accept their assistance.

Even relief workers of the UN, which has a presence in the diplomatically isolated South-East Asian country, were still waiting for visas five days after Cyclone Nargis struck with 190km/h winds.

Political analysts and critics of 46 years of military rule say the cyclone may have long-term implications for the junta, which is even more feared and resented since last September’s bloody crackdown on Buddhist monk-led protests.

Water-purification tablets, plastic sheeting, basic medical kits, bed nets and food were priorities, UN officials said.

Most of the victims were swept away by a wall of water from the cyclone that smashed into coastal towns and villages in the rice-growing delta south-west of the biggest city of Rangoon.

”We estimate upwards of one million people are currently in need of shelter and life-saving assistance,” Horsey said, adding that 5 000 square kilometres of the delta were under water.

At Rangoon airport, a Reuters photographer on a Thai military plane said two Indian and one Chinese transport plane with tents, construction materials had also landed.

Debris and fallen trees at the airport had been cleared, but paddy fields around the city were still flooded.

Indonesia, hard-hit by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, said it was giving $1-million in cash and sending two planes to Burma on Thursday with blankets, baby food, medicine and other goods.

”What you need is to think outside the box, and all the rules, all the conventions, go out the door and what we need to do is save people, save lives and to do extraordinary things to make sure that resources come in,” Indonesian presidential spokesperson Dino Patti Djalal said in an interview on CNN.

The military junta’s own aid operation has moved up a gear with some helicopter drops into the region, but land convoys were nowhere to be seen, a witness in the delta said.

One doctor in the town of Labutta told Australian radio that people clung to trees in a desperate fight for survival. Entire villages were virtually destroyed, reports from the delta said.

”All the victims were brought to the town and I asked them, ‘How many of you survived?’ and they said about 200, 300,” Aye Kyu told Australian Broadcasting Corporation radio.

”Then I asked them, ‘How many people in your area?’ They said about 5 000.”

In one town alone, Bogalay, at least 10 000 people were killed, according to a town-by-town list of casualties and damage announced by the reclusive military government.

Disease and hunger

With disease, hunger and thirst threatening survivors, Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd begged the junta to allow in large-scale humanitarian relief.

”Forget politics. Forget the military dictatorship. Let’s just get aid and assistance through to people who are suffering and dying as we speak, through a lack of support on the ground,” Rudd told reporters in Perth.

US President George Bush on Tuesday offered to provide the use of US Navy ships and aircraft carriers in humanitarian aid missions as well as $3-million to meet urgent needs.

But he made that offer at a signing ceremony awarding the junta’s strongest political opponent — detained Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi — the Congressional Gold Medal, the top US civilian honour.

There was some despair on the storm-ravaged streets of Rangoon at shortages of fuel and water and power cuts, although electricity was restored in some parts of the former capital. — Reuters