/ 26 May 2008

Aid workers ready for action after Burma promise

Foreign aid workers saddled up for the cyclone-ravaged Irrawaddy Delta on Monday to see whether army-ruled Burma will honour a promise made by its top general to give them freedom of movement. ”We’re going to head out today and test the boundaries,” one official from a major Western relief agency told Reuters in Yangon shortly before his departure for a region that has been off-limits to nearly all foreigners since the May 2 cyclone.

Thousands of beggars have been lined up along the roads of the delta, where the storm left 134 000 people dead or missing and another 2,4-million clinging to survival.

Droves of children shouted ”Just throw something” at passing vehicles. But police told drivers and volunteer donors not to give them anything as they were ”just begging”.

”Go directly to where you want to go. Don’t throw anything from the car. Know your own people,” they shouted at the cars at one checkpoint on the way to the devastated town of Bogalay.

Three weeks after the disaster, there are still many villages that have received no outside help and waterways of Burma’s rice bowl remain littered with animal carcasses and corpses, either grotesquely bloated or rotting to the bone.

The stench of death is widespread, as are the swarms of flies.

Another $50-million

Donors pledged nearly $50-million in aid at a landmark conference on Sunday but Western countries said much of the cash would be contingent on access to the delta.

Many of the donations are destined for the UN’s $201-million emergency appeal, which was nearly a third full before the meeting. It is meant to provide help for three months only.

Besides denying and delaying visas to aid officials, army and police checkpoints on roads leading out of Yangon have prevented all but a handful leaving the former capital.

However, junta supremo Than Shwe promised visiting UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon last week that all aid officials and disaster assessment teams would be allowed in ”regardless of nationalities”.

Given the army’s reputation for breaking its word during the 46 years it has held power, the reaction was cautious from aid agencies and countries such as the United States, which regards Burma as an ”outpost of tyranny”.

Washington told the Rangoon conference it was ready to raise its offer of $20,5-million in aid if the junta opened up, but added it was ”dismayed” the generals went ahead with a constitutional referendum in the middle of the disaster.

The re-imposition, expected in the next couple of days, of a rolling, year-long house arrest order for opposition leader and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi is only likely to rile the Bush administration further.

Increasing the frustrations of aid agencies and governments, the Burma embassy in Bangkok was closed on Monday after a fire caused extensive damage to one building in the compound. Thai police said the blaze did not appear to be suspicious.

$11-billion please

The UN says three in four of those most in need have yet to receive any help — and that hunger and disease could send the death toll soaring if things do not change fast.

The junta, by contrast, says the relief phase of the disaster is already over, and is angling for $11-billion in long-term reconstruction assistance. Diplomats say they don’t know how the government arrived at that figure.

The disaster, one of the worst cyclones ever to hit Asia, has forced the reclusive generals to talk to the outside world but they have managed only in part to overcome their innate distrust of anything foreign.

In particular, there appears to be no chance of the generals ever allowing US and French navy ships near the delta to deliver aid directly to survivors, either by boat or helicopter.

France said on Sunday it had ordered its ship, Le Mistral, to head for Thailand, where its cargo of 1 000 tonnes of drugs, food and tents will be unloaded into the care of the World Food Programme (WFP). – Reuters