Hungry crowds of cyclone survivors stormed a few shops that opened on Wednesday in Myanmar’s devastated Irrawaddy delta, as the country’s military rulers kept a massive international aid effort on hold.
Little relief reached the people in the worst-hit western region, even as corpses drifted in salty flood waters after the weekend disaster that killed more than 22,000 people and left an estimated 1 million homeless.
Internal UN documents obtained by The Associated Press showed growing frustrations at foot-dragging by the junta, which has kept the impoverished nation isolated for five decades to maintain its iron-fisted control.
“Visas are still a problem. It is not clear when it will be sorted out,” said the minutes of a meeting on Wednesday of the UN task force coordinating relief for Myanmar in Bangkok, Thailand.
It said UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon “will contact Myanmar” on Wednesday to arrange a meeting with high-ranking officials on the issue.
Meanwhile, local aid workers distributed essential relief supplies in the region, said Richard Horsey, Bangkok-based spokesman for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Aid.
This included water purification tablets, mosquito nets, plastic sheeting and basic medical supplies. But heavily flooded areas were accessible only by boat, with helicopters unable to deliver relief supplies there, said.
“Basically the entire lower delta region is under water,” Horsey told The Associated Press in Bangkok. “Teams are talking about bodies floating around in the water,” he said. This is “a major, major disaster we’re dealing with.”
Myanmar’s state media said 22,464 people died when Cyclone Nargis slammed into the country’s western coast on Saturday. But Horsey predicted the number of fatalities could rise “dramatically.”
On Wednesday, a few shops opened in the delta but were stormed by people, said Paul Risley, a spokesman for the UN World Food Programme in Bangkok, quoting his agency’s workers in the area.
“Fist fights are breaking out,” he said.
Some villages were almost totally destroyed and vast rice-growing areas wiped out in the Irrawaddy delta, which is considered Myanmar’s rice bowl.
“The most urgent need is food and water,” said Andrew Kirkwood, head of the Save the Children aid group in Yangon. “Many people are getting sick. The whole place is under salt water and there is nothing to drink. They can’t use tablets to purify salt water.”
The group distributed food, plastic sheeting, cooking utensils and chlorine tablets to 230,000 people in the Yangon area, he said. Trucks were sent to the delta on Wednesday carrying rice, salt, sugar and tarps.
A Yangon resident who returned home from the area said people were drinking coconut water because of a lack of safe drinking water. He said many people were on boats using blankets as sails.
Local aid groups were distributing rice porridge, which people were receiving in dirty plastic shopping bags because all their kitchenware was lost, he said. The man spoke on condition of anonymity because he feared retribution from authorities for talking to a foreign news agency.
In Geneva, UN spokeswoman Elisabeth Byrs said Myanmar had authorised an airplane to bring UN aid supplies to cyclone victims, but UN staff in Bangkok were still awaiting approval of visas so they could enter Myanmar to assess the damage.
Another UN relief meeting in Geneva noted that “most international organisations/teams coming from abroad are ... still waiting to get visas,” according to minutes of the meeting obtained by the AP.
It said relief teams and aid material were waiting to be deployed from Thailand, Singapore, Italy, France, Sweden, Britain, South Korea, Australia, Israel, the US, Poland and Japan.
The Singapore Red Cross said a team of nine medical personnel was “on standby pending approval of visas.”
However, Myanmar had accepted aid from traditional friends China, India and Indonesia. A voluntary group from Malaysia was also granted visas, according to the minutes of the meeting.
In Yangon, many angry residents said they were given vague and incorrect information about the approaching storm and no instructions on how to cope when it struck.
Buddhist monks and Catholic nuns carrying axes and knives joined Yangon residents in clearing roads of ancient, fallen trees that were once the city’s pride. Soldiers were out on the streets in large numbers for the first time since the cyclone hit.
City residents faced new challenges as markets doubled prices of rice, charcoal and bottled water.
At a market in the suburb of Kyimyindaing, a fish monger shouted to shoppers: “Come, come the fish is very fresh.”
But an angry woman snapped back: “Even if the fish is fresh, I have no water to cook it!”
Electricity was restored in a small portion of Yangon but most city residents, who rely on wells with electric pumps, had no water.
Vendors sold bottled water at more than double the normal price. Prices of rice and cooking oil also doubled.
Britain pledged $9.8 million (Dh36.064 million) and the US offered more than $3 million (Dh11.04 million) in aid. US President George W Bush said Washington was prepared to use the US Navy to help search for the dead and missing.
However, the Myanmar military, which regularly accuses the United States of trying to subvert its rule, was unlikely to accept US military presence in its territory.
The cyclone came a week before a key referendum on a proposed constitution backed by the junta.
State radio said Saturday’s vote would be delayed until May 24 in 40 of 45 townships in the Yangon area and seven in the Irrawaddy delta. But it indicated the balloting would proceed in other areas as scheduled.
Myanmar has been under military rule since 1962. Its government has been widely criticised for suppressing pro-democracy parties such as the one led by Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate who has been under house arrest for more than 12 of the past 18 years.
At least 31 people were killed and thousands more were detained in September when the military cracked down on peaceful protests led by Buddhist monks and democracy advocates.