Burma: ‘If we don’t act now, more lives will be lost’

The United States sent its first aid flight to Burma on Monday, but experts warned the relief effort was floundering and 1,5-million cyclone survivors were at grave risk from hunger and disease.

The US military transport plane laden with emergency supplies was permitted to land by the ruling junta, which has been condemned for stalling the disaster response, and two more US flights are due to arrive on Tuesday.

“We know that it is a small salve for a much larger wound. More has to get into Burma. More has to reach the areas that have been hardest hit,” said US ambassador to Thailand Eric John.

“It is absolutely critical that disaster-response specialists be allowed into Burma. It is important that we and the international community be allowed to help the victims of this unimaginable horror,” he said.

The flow of international aid into Burma, which says 62 000 people are dead or missing, has increased in the past two days, but relief agencies say much more is needed to avert a humanitarian catastrophe.

State television raised the death toll by 3 480 to 31 938 on Monday, with another 29 770 still missing. The UN says more than 100 000 are likely to have been killed.

The UN also said the relief operation was only at 10% of the level needed to bring water, food and supplies to desperate survivors, and that just 20% of the food required was making its way in.

In Rangoon, the country’s main city, the rice warehouse of the UN’s food agency was empty.

“I would urge that we don’t judge the success of this operation by flights arriving alone,” Richard Horsey, a spokesperson for the UN’s humanitarian arm, said in Bangkok.

“This is a huge disaster,” Horsey said in an interview with Agence France-Presse TV. “It would overwhelm the capacity of any country.”

‘We have not got any aid from anyone’

Deeply suspicious of any outside influences that could undermine their total control, the generals reiterated that foreign specialists — who have the expertise to oversee the relief effort — would not be put in charge.

The UN said that progress on this issue was critical.

“If we do not act now, and we do not act fast, more lives will be lost,” said Catherine Bragg, the UN’s deputy emergency-relief coordinator.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown condemned the restrictions as “completely unacceptable”, and urged the regime to allow aid agencies “unfettered” access.

A US delegation led by Admiral Timothy Keating, chief of the US Pacific Command, held talks with senior junta leaders when they touched down on the C-130 military transporter in Rangoon.

They said they held a “cordial meeting” but failed to win permission for a far broader US relief effort in Burma, including navy ships and helicopters that could deploy in the Irrawaddy Delta hardest-hit by the May 3 storm.

“I hope we could lay the groundwork for a broad US united effort. I believe our discussions were a good first step,” said Henrietta Fore, an administrator with the US Agency for International Development (USAid).

Ten days after the tragedy struck, bloated corpses are still floating in the water, disease is starting to break out among survivors with little food or shelter, and many say the government has given them nothing.

“We have not got any aid from anyone,” said Man Mu, a mother of five in one of the thousands of tiny delta villages that were pulverised by the storm. One of her children was swept away in the disaster.

“We only have the clothes we are wearing,” she said. “We have lost everything.”

A Western diplomat in Rangoon said there were reports of extensive dysentery outbreaks, and that cholera, typhoid and malaria could follow quickly.

“There’s no evidence of a major spread yet but some villages and communities have been quarantined, no one is going in or out, to try to prevent the spread of disease,” he said. — AFP

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Related stories

Covid-19 puts Sierra Leone’s expectant mothers at further risk

Almost 70% of the world’s maternal deaths happen in Africa. Now there’s coronavirus — and with poor prenatal and postnatal care on the continent, expectant mothers and children under five are even more vulnerable.

Chilcot report: Tony Blair’s government accused of using bogus evidence to launch 2003 Iraq invasion

The UK government's infamous "sexed-up" September dossier on Iraq's threat made the claim Iraq was producing biological and chemical weapons.

Burmese refugees cheer the visit of ‘Mother Suu’

Aung San Suu Kyi has been given a rapturous welcome by thousands of Burma refugees forced by human rights abuses to live in a Thai border camp.

Suu Kyi warns against violence after ‘victory of the people’

Burma's opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi has called for a "dignified victory" after her National League for Democracy party's apparent election win.

Burmese opposition claims historic victory for Suu Kyi

Burma's opposition has claimed an important victory for pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi in her parliamentary bid, sparking scenes of jubilation.

Suu Kyi may soon play a role in Burma’s parliament

Aung San Suu Kyi could be given a job in Burma's nominally civilian government if she is elected to parliament in the April by-elections.

Subscribers only

SAA bailout raises more questions

As the government continues to grapple with the troubles facing the airline, it would do well to keep on eye on the impending Denel implosion

ANC’s rogue deployees revealed

Despite 6 300 ANC cadres working in government, the party’s integrity committee has done little to deal with its accused members

More top stories

The Nigerian government is killing its citizens — again

‘Nigeria kills its people. Nigeria has always killed its people.’

Finance probe into the Ingonyama Trust Board goes ahead

The threat of legal action from ITB chairperson Jerome Ngwenya fails to halt forensic audit ordered by the land reform minister

Ailing Far East Rand hospital purchases ‘vanity’ furniture

Dr Zacharia Mathaba, who purchased the furniture, is a suspected overtime fraudster and was appointed as Gauteng hospital chief executive despite facing serious disciplinary charges

Institutions of higher learning should commemorate their casualties

The bust of Matikweni Nkuna at Tshwane University of Technology is an example of how we should honour those who fought for equal access to education

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday