Burma says no need for foreign aid distribution

Burma will accept foreign aid but distribute relief itself, an official newspaper said on Friday, after a disaster rescue team from Qatar that arrived in Rangoon on an aid flight was turned back.

”Myanmar [Burma] is not in a position to receive rescue and information teams from foreign countries at the moment,” the government-run Myanma Ahlin newspaper said in a report on the aid operation slowly building up for survivors of Cyclone Nargis.

”But at present Myanmar is giving priority to receiving relief aid and distributing them to the storm-hit regions with its own resources,” the newspaper said.

The Qatar plane was one of 12 international relief flights that landed in the former capital on Thursday, it said.

Outside frustration is mounting at delays by the generals in giving visas to aid workers and landing rights for flights, including those from the United States military, which has supply planes on standby in neighbouring Thailand.

Survivors of last Saturday’s cyclone have largely been fending for themselves in the swampy delta.

”They are gone. They are gone,” U Thein, who lost her eight-year-old son and three-month-old daughter in the cyclone, whispered in her village near hard-hit Labutta town in the delta.

Around her, in hushed tones, villagers say more than 100 of their friends and relatives were killed in Saturday’s carnage. The sea surge and 190km/h winds ripped the tiny village apart, tearing down coconut groves and ripping the roofs off buildings, including the local primary school.

Scores of trees block pathways or balance precariously on top of the few buildings left standing.

Besides the cawing of crows and gentle weeping of the destitute, the only sound is the hammering of nails as villagers desperately try to rebuild their homes in the malaria-infested swamplands.

No soldiers or government agencies have turned up to help.

”We have to get shelter. We have to get shelter,” said San Myint. She and her brother have been sawing and hammering since dawn to repair their shattered home. ”The mosquitoes are eating us at night,” she says. ”But we were lucky. We survived.”

The official death toll still stands at nearly 23 000, although experts fear it could be as high as 100 000.

Patriotic referendum

Burma’s junta urged citizens on Friday to do their patriotic duty and vote for an army-drafted Constitution in a televised message that made mo mention of the estimated 1,5-million people clinging to survival a week after the cyclone.

The junta is holding a referendum on the Constitution on Saturday in all but the worst-affected parts of the country. Its opponents have suggested the delays in allowing in aid workers are because it does not want an influx of foreigners before the vote.

Thailand’s Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej announced on Friday he would fly to Burma this weekend after British and American envoys urged him to ask the ruling generals to open the door to Western aid.

”I have already contacted them. I will see them on Sunday,” Samak told reporters after meeting British Ambassador Quinton Quayle in Bangkok.

The US Navy said four ships, including the destroyer USS Mustin and the three-vessel Essex Expeditionary Strike Force, were heading for Burma from the Gulf of Thailand after the Essex deployed helicopters to Thailand for aid operations.

The United States, however, was waiting for approval to start shipping in aid on military planes.

”We’re outraged by the slowness of the response of the government of Burma to welcome and accept assistance,” US Ambassador to the United Nations Zalmay Khalilzad told reporters.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said he was seeking direct talks with the junta’s senior general, Than Shwe, to persuade him to remove obstacles. A UN spokesperson said Ban believed it might be ”prudent” for the government to postpone the referendum.

Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said on Friday he wanted South-east Asian nations and China to apply more pressure on Burma. ”The Burmese regime is behaving appallingly,” he said. But UN humanitarian affairs chief John Holmes questioned the value of voicing outrage with the junta over the aid delays.

”It’s not clear to me at this stage anyway that bludgeoning them over the head is going to make any difference or make it any better. We have to work with them,” he told US National Public Radio.

While Holmes said the United Nations estimated at least 1,5-million people were ”severely affected”, Britain’s UN ambassador, John Sawers, said it may be in the millions.

China, the closest thing Burma has to an ally, urged patience in dealing with the junta.

”[The international community] should take Myanmar’s willingness and ability to receive [the aid] into full account, and have patient and close communication with Myanmar,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Qin Gang told reporters. – Reuters

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