Burma tightened access to its cyclone disaster zone on Wednesday, turning back foreigners and ignoring pleas to accept outside experts who could save countless lives before time runs out.
A top European Union humanitarian official said there was now a risk of famine, after the storm destroyed rice stocks in a main farming region in one of the world’s poorest and most isolated countries.
International aid groups held an urgent meeting in neighbouring Thailand, frustrated by a defiant regime that has held up visas for emergency workers to deliver food, water, medicine and shelter for up to two million people.
But hope faded that the generals, deeply suspicious of the outside world, would budge, and there were warnings that time is running out as the government continues to insist on managing the catastrophe alone.
”If there is a lack of access, more people will die,” Louis Michel, the EU’s humanitarian aid commissioner, said in an interview with Agence France-Presse TV in Bangkok before heading to Burma for talks with the regime.
”The fact that it is the rice bowl of Burma [that has been hit] and that all the stocks of rice have been destroyed — there is a risk of a catastrophe at the level of famine,” he said.
State media raised the death toll to 38 491 with 27 838 missing on Wednesday, but British minister Douglas Alexander said reports from agencies on the ground indicated the number of dead and missing could rise above 200 000.
Aid groups say that while tonnes of aid are flowing in — five more United States relief flights arrived Wednesday — not nearly enough is reaching the southern delta, which was obliterated in the May 3 cyclone.
Only experienced disaster specialists can ensure the vast relief operation gets supplies to victims in the remote and flooded region, who will fall prey to starvation and disease unless help arrives fast, they said.
Thailand Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej said after a brief visit to Burma aimed at nudging the regime to accept a full-scale disaster response that the junta had ruled out allowing in foreign experts.
”They insisted they can take care of their people and their country. They can manage by themselves,” he said after a meeting with Burma Prime Minister Thein Sein.
Fear of outside influence
The military, which has ruled the country with an iron hand for almost half a century, has long feared any outside influence that could weaken its tight control.
Foreign reporters said they were turned back at stricter roadblocks on the way to the delta on Wednesday, and even citizens were not allowed in if they could not provide names and addresses of people they said they were visiting.
”Foreign tourists are not allowed into any part of the Irrawaddy division,” said a police officer at one roadblock where tourists were being pulled off public buses for ID checks.
The United Nations said there were worries that the aid pouring into the country was being diverted from those who needed it most.
”That concern exists,” a spokesperson for UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon said.
And while the regime insists it has managed to get aid to almost all of the affected areas, survivors tell a different story.
Reporters who have made it to the delta relate scenes of almost unimaginable misery and despair.
Untold numbers of corpses have been left rotting in ground that is little more than a saltwater swamp, thousands of hungry people are begging in the streets and most rice stocks are soaked and ruined.
”The rice we got is already wet from the rain. It’s not very good to eat,” 22-year-old Thin Thin told a reporter who made it to one of the remote delta regions.
Compounding the misery, the yearly monsoon rains are about to begin and the torrential downpours forecast for the second half of this week are expected to worsen access.
”With soil already saturated, with large areas already flooded and with communities already pushed to their capacities, this rain could represent the worst scenario imaginable,” the Red Cross said.
Britain’s Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, said he had asked the UN to convene an emergency summit on the disaster and urged the UN chief to visit the country. — AFP