/ 27 May 2008

Foreign aid workers enter Burma’s cyclone-hit delta

Foreign aid workers on Tuesday pressed into Burma’s Irrawaddy Delta, testing the junta’s pledge to open up areas where one million people have yet to receive aid three weeks after the cyclone.

Six foreign staff based in Rangoon with the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) were allowed to join teams of mainly Burma workers to assess the scale of the devastation left by Cyclone Nargis, which left 133 000 dead or missing.

“We’re very pleased obviously that we’ve been able to get international colleagues out” into the delta, Unicef spokesperson Shantha Bloemen said in Bangkok.

Other charities such as Médecins sans Frontières were also sending foreign staff into the delta, testing Burma’s promise to open up to international experts whose specialist knowledge is needed to ramp up emergency operations.

Most of the 2,4-million people in desperate need of food, shelter and medicine have yet to receive any international aid, according to the UN.

After three weeks of insisting that the military could handle the aid effort itself, Burma’s tightly controlled state media on Tuesday hailed the work of the UN agencies following a donor conference at the weekend.

“The United Nations and its agencies took prompt action to carry out relief and rehabilitation mission with the contributions of international organisations,” the official New Light of Burma said.

“Providing food, clothing and shelters to the victims is to be carried out with the aid of the international community,” it said, adding that reconstruction would be done “with the help of skilled workers”.

Donors offered tens of millions of dollars in cyclone aid at the weekend during a conference hosted by the UN and the Association of South-East Asian Nations (Asean).

The money came with a clear message for the junta — that international help depends on open access for aid workers to the cyclone zone.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who last week became the first UN chief to visit this country in more than four decades, said junta leader Than Shwe had assured him that workers would be allowed into the delta.

Burma also agreed for the UN and Asean to coordinate a stepped-up relief programme, but details on how that would work remain murky.

Entire villages in the delta were wiped away in the storm, and those that survived are often inaccessible by road.

Cyclone survivors have lined the roads to beg for food from private donors, who have been driving from Rangoon and other towns to deliver aid themselves.

Police and immigration officers continue to stage roadblocks to question foreigners, and authorities in some areas were shooing away beggars who hoped to receive donations from passing cars. — AFP