/ 15 May 2008

Foreign powers lean on Burma to open up aid drive

Western powers kept up the pressure on Burma’s generals on Thursday to allow a massive aid effort as relief workers struggled to help an estimated 2,5-million people left destitute by Cyclone Nargis.

The European Union’s top aid official has warned that the military government’s restrictions on foreign aid workers and equipment were increasing the risk of starvation and disease in the country.

Nearly two weeks after the deadly storm tore through the heavily populated Irrawaddy Delta rice bowl, leaving tens of thousands of people dead, supplies of food, medicine and temporary shelter have been sent out in dribs and drabs to devastated communities.

In Burma’s main city, Rangoon, foreign aid experts prevented from accessing the delta play pool in the evenings and watch, in frustration, television footage of the miserable conditions.

”People all over the world want to help Burma but the government is blocking medical teams,” said one relief worker.

The United Nations has ramped up its estimate of the number of people in urgent need of aid to 2,5-million, and has called for a high-level donors’ conference to deal with the crisis.

Political pressure

Louis Michel, the EU’s top aid official, is in Rangoon for talks with the junta but his mission comes a day after Thailand’s prime minister was told Burma could deal with ”the problem” by itself.

”We want to convince the authorities of our good faith. We are there for humanitarian reasons,” Michel earlier told reporters.

He dismissed suggestions from some European countries that they should bring in aid without waiting for permission from the authorities.

But as the clock ticks and conditions in refugee shelters deteriorate the political pressure on Burma is likely to grow.

Britain’s UN ambassador, John Sawers, has indicated that a high-level conference would be more than a donors’ meeting, calling it a ”major international meeting” in line with Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s calls for a UN summit on coordinating aid efforts in Burma.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has also proposed appointing a joint coordinator from the UN and the Association of South-East Asian Nations (Asean) to oversee aid delivery and has said he would soon send the UN’s humanitarian chief, John Holmes, to Burma.

The secretary general of Asean urged patience when dealing with the generals.

”We are trying to work around a very, very strict resistance and mentality and mindset that have been there for a long, long time,” Surin Pitsuwan, a former Thai foreign minister, told an audience at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington.

Just help

Burma was once the world’s biggest rice-exporting country, but more than 40 years of military rule have left it impoverished. The military rulers have repeatedly crushed pro-democracy movements and tightly restrict visits by foreigners.

A senior US military official in Washington said there were signs aid was stacking up at Rangoon airport and said Washington wanted to fly choppers to the areas hit worst.

Officials said that despite reports that some supplies were being stolen or diverted by the army, the humanitarian needs were so great that they would keep making deliveries — while continuing to urge that US aid workers be granted visas.

As diplomatic efforts roll on, US emergency aid flights will continue and NGOs with local staff continue to do what they can.

”I think at this moment we have to drop politics and just help,” said Frank Smithius, head of Médecins Sans Frontières.

”The army is definitely distributing food in certain areas, they’re not doing nothing. But it’s not enough. In some areas there’s enough food but not enough water and shelter. In other areas we see that they have nothing.” — Reuters