Myanmar seizes UN relief material

A Burmese woman holds her child at a refugee camp in Yangon, Myanmar. It has been estimated that more than 100,000 people were killed by Cyclone Nargis. (GETTY IMAGES)


Myanmar’s junta seized two planeloads of critical aid sent by the UN on Friday for a multitude of hungry survivors of last week’s devastating cyclone, forcing the world body to suspend further help.

“All of the food aid and equipment that we managed to get in has been confiscated,” said Paul Risley, a spokesman of the World Food Program in Bangkok.

He said the seized aid, including 38 tons of high-energy biscuits, arrived on two flights from Dhaka, Bangladesh, and Dubai, United Arab Emirates. “It is being held by the government. We are waiting resolution of this matter,” he said.

Meanwhile, more than 1 million people made homeless in last Saturday’s cyclone waited for food, shelter and medicine. Many crammed into Buddhist monasteries or just camped out in the open.

Entire villages were submerged in the worst-hit Irrawaddy delta, with bodies floating in salty water and children ripped from their parents’ arms. More than 65,000 people are dead or missing, state media reported, and aid groups warned that thousands of children may have been orphaned and the area is on the verge of a medical disaster.

“Animal and human corpses (are) a big problem. Many are not buried and lie in water. They have started rotting and the stench is beyond words,” said Anders Ladekart of the Danish Red Cross who arrived in Yangon on Friday.

He said about 20,000 body bags were being sent so volunteers can start collecting bodies.

The WFP had sent some aid on a scheduled Thai Airways cargo flight on Thursday, which went through without a hitch. Another flight carrying Italian aid also came in on Thursday.

But a bureaucratic mix-up led to the seizure when the two flights landed on Friday, Risley said. Until it is freed, the UN will send no more aid, Risley said.

“For the time being, we have no choice but to end further efforts to bring critical needed food aid into Myanmar at this time,” Risley said.

The isolationist regime of this Southeast Asian nation has also refused to grant visas to foreign aid workers who could assess the extent of the disaster and manage the logistics.

“The frustration caused by what appears to be a paperwork delay is unprecedented in modern humanitarian relief efforts,” said Risley. “It’s astonishing.”

He said the WFP submitted 10 visa applications around the world, including six in Bangkok, but none has been approved.

“We strongly urge the government of Myanmar to process these visa applications as quickly as possible, including work over the weekend,” he said.

On Friday, Japan said it will give aid worth $10 million (Dh36.8 million) through the UN to Myanmar, adding to the massive amounts of aid that has been pledged by foreign governments.

The junta said in a statement on Friday it was grateful to the international community for its assistance – which has included 11 chartered planes loaded with aid supplies – but the best way to help was just to send in material rather than personnel.

One relief flight was sent back after landing in Yangon on Thursday because it carried a search-and-rescue team and media representatives who had not received permission to enter the country, the junta said. It did not give details, but said the plane had flown in from Qatar.

“Believe me the government will not allow outsiders to go into the devastated area,” said Yangon food shop owner Joseph Kyaw.

“The government only cares about its own stability. They don’t care about the plight of the people,” he said.

In neighboring Thailand, tons of critical aid and experts are waiting to go in if the junta gives permission.

Among those waiting were members of the USAID Disaster Assistance Response Team. Air Force transport planes and helicopters packed with supplies also sat waiting for a green light to enter Myanmar, also known as Burma.

It is not clear how much of the aid that has reached Myanmar has been delivered to the victims in the Irrawaddy delta. The UN estimates 1.5 million people have been “severely affected” and voiced “significant concern” about the disposal of dead bodies.

A Norway-based opposition news network, the Democratic Voice of Burma, provided graphic details of misery.

In the village of Kongyangon, someone had written in Burmese, “We are all in trouble. Please come help us” on black asphalt, a video from the opposition group showed. A few feet away was another plea: “We’re hungry,” the words too small to be seen by air rescuers.

According to state media, 22,997 people died and 42,019 are missing from Cyclone Nargis, which hit the country’s Irrawaddy delta on Saturday. Shari Villarosa, who heads the United States Embassy in Yangon, said the number of dead could eventually exceed 100,000 because of illnesses.

Grim assessments about what lies ahead continued: The aid group Action Against Hunger noted that the delta region is known as the country’s granary, and the cyclone hit before the harvest.

“If the harvest has been destroyed this will have a devastating impact on food security in Myanmar,” the group said.

Anders Ladegaard, secretary-general of the Danish Red Cross, called the relief operation “a nightmare.”

“There are problems to the aid inside (Myanmar) and there are problems to get the aid out to the delta area. There are almost no boats and no helicopters,” Ladegaard said by satellite telephone to Danish broadcaster DR.

In Yangon itself, the price of increasingly scarce water shot up by more than 500 per cent, and rice and oil jumped by 60 per cent over the last three days, the group said.

By snubbing the US offer to help cyclone victims, the junta has refused to take advantage of Washington’s enormous ability to deliver aid quickly, which was evident during the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that killed 230,000 people in a dozen nations.

Thai Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej told reporters on Friday that he will try to go to Myanmar on Sunday to persuade the junta to accept US help.

But the junta told Samak his Myanmar counterpart is too busy to meet with him, said a Thai army general, speaking on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the media.