Pressure mounts on Burma to open up to aid

Aid was trickling in on Sunday to an estimated 2,5-million people left destitute by Cyclone Nargis in Burma’s Irrawaddy delta as more foreign envoys tried to get the junta to admit large-scale international relief.

Thousands of children could die within weeks if food does not get to them soon, non-government aid organisation Save the Children said.

The World Food Programme (WFP), leading the outside emergency food effort, said it had managed to get rice and beans to 212 000 of the 750 000 people it thinks are most in need after the May 2 storm, which left at least 134 000 dead or missing.

”It’s not enough. There are a very large number of people who are yet to receive any kind of assistance and that’s what’s keeping our teams working round the clock,” WFP spokesperson Marcus Prior said in Bangkok.

Save the Children said in a Sunday statement its research had found about ”30 000 children under the age of five in the cyclone-affected Irrawaddy delta were already acutely malnourished before the cyclone hit” on May 2. ”Of those, Save the Children believes that several thousand are at risk of death in the next two to three weeks because of a lack of food.”

In the past 50 years, only two Asian cyclones have exceeded Nargis in terms of human cost — a 1970 storm that killed 500 000 people in neighbouring Bangladesh, and another that killed 143 000 in 1991, also in Bangladesh.

With the reclusive military government still refusing to open its doors to a large-scale, tsunami-style aid operation, disaster experts say Nargis’s body count could still climb dramatically.

To try to offset such a prospect, a steady stream of increasingly important diplomats has been flying into the former Burma to plead for more access for aid workers and mercy flights.

Pressure is also mounting at the United Nations, where France has accused the junta of being on the verge of a crime against humanity. On Saturday, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown condemned the generals’ sluggish response as ”inhuman”.

The French and United States navies have ships equipped with aid and helicopters hovering off Burma’s waters in the Bay of Bengal, but Paris and Washington say they will not start any aid flights from the vessels until they get a green light from the generals.

UN chief humanitarian officer John Holmes was due in Rangoon on Sunday evening, to meet junta number four Thein Sein, who is Prime Minister and Burma military aid operations leader.

Holmes was also expected to hand over a third letter from his boss, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, to junta supremo Than Shwe, who has refused to talk to Ban on the phone since the cyclone’s 190km/h winds and its 3,5m sea surge slammed into the delta.

Delta tours

Confident they are handling the crisis properly, the generals took diplomats on a tour on Saturday of the delta, where people are now clinging to survival in an area the size of Austria.

They appeared to have worked hard to keep the diplomats away from the destitute.

”The purpose was to show the situation was under control. Where we were they didn’t hide anything, but of course they selected the places we visited,” said Bernard Delpuech, head of the European Commission humanitarian office in Rangoon.

Three days ago, men, women and children stood for kilometres alongside the road near the delta town of Kunyangon, begging in the mud and rain for scraps of food or clothing from the occasional passing aid vehicle.

Thousands of other refugees are crammed into monasteries and schools, fed and watered by local volunteers and private donors who have sent in clothes, biscuits, dried noodles and rice.

Buddhist monks play a major role.

”We have distributed over 100 tonnes of rice and more than 3 000 tin roofing sheets so far. We are trying to distribute more,” said the Venerable Nyanissara (73), a patriarch running a makeshift relief centre south of Rangoon.

The reluctance of the military, which has ruled for the past 46 years, to allow an influx of foreign aid workers appears to stem from fear that it might loosen its vice-like grip on power.

In a rare acknowledgement of criticism, state television said on Saturday outside media reports suggesting the government was not doing enough were inaccurate.

Tens of millions of dollars have been spent, the army, navy and air force have delivered extensive aid and 122 medical teams have been dispatched to the delta to help victims and monitor for infectious diseases such as cholera, Burma television said.

The junta’s official toll from the disaster stands at 77 738 dead and 55 917 missing.

Beyond the challenge of immediate relief for survivors, there could also be problems down the road from the storm. Save the Children warned ”long-term food security … is at risk because the cyclone has prevented many farmers sowing seed for the monsoon harvest”.

The group said it was trying to get seeds to farmers whose fields were no longer flooded. — Reuters

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