Friday, May 9, 2008

UN Says 1.5 Million People Affected by Burma Storm/Junta hands out television sets

t r u t h o u t | 05.09

UN Says 1.5 Million People Affected by Burma Storm
By Aung Hla Tun

Friday 09 May 2008

Yangon - The United Nations estimated 1.5 million people have been "severely affected" by the cyclone that swept through Myanmar, as the United States expressed outrage with the country's junta over delays in allowing in aid.

In Myanmar , despairing survivors awaited emergency relief on Friday, a week after 100,000 people were feared killed by Cyclone Nargis as it roared across the farms and villages of the low-lying Irrawaddy delta region.

"We're outraged by the slowness of the response of the government of Burma to welcome and accept assistance," U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Zalmay Khalilzad.

"It's clear that the government's ability to deal with the situation, which is catastrophic, is limited," he told reporters on Thursday.

The U.N. food agency and Red Cross/Red Crescent said they had finally started flying in emergency relief supplies after foot-dragging by Myanmar 's military rulers. The United States , however, was waiting for approval to start military flights.

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates told reporters Washington was "fully prepared to help and to help right away, and it would be a tragedy if these assets" were not used.

The Navy said four ships, including the destroyer USS Mustin and the three-vessel Essex Expeditionary Strike Force, were heading for Myanmar from the Gulf of Thailand after the Essex deployed helicopters to Thailand for aid operations.

Witnesses have seen little evidence of a relief effort in the delta that was swamped in Saturday's cyclone - the worst since 1991, when 143,000 people were killed in neighbouring Bangladesh .

Towns and hamlets in the Irrawaddy Delta were helping themselves in the absence of any outside aid.

"There are more than 1,000 people down there on the outskirts of Laputta," said one resident. "It's a refugee camp. Water is a big problem. So many people from here have made donations. They have given rice, vegetables and noodles."

Asked if survivors were angry at the regime, he said: "They need food and family. They don't need revolution."

Influx of Foreigners

Some critics accuse the junta of stalling because they do not want an influx of foreigners into the countryside during Saturday's referendum on the army-drafted constitution that looks set to cement the military's grip on power. The plebiscite has been postponed for two weeks in areas worst-hit by the storm.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he was seeking direct talks with the junta's senior general, Than Shwe, to persuade him to remove obstacles. A U.N. spokeswoman said Ban believed it might be "prudent" for the government to postpone the referendum.

U.N. humanitarian affairs chief John Holmes was asked by reporters if he suspected a link between the referendum and Myanmar 's reluctance to grant visas to aid workers.

"The referendum may or may not be a complicating factor, but as I say, my focus is really on getting the aid to people as fast as possible," Holmes said.

Questioning the value of voicing outrage over the aid delays, Holmes said later that it was better to work with the government.

"It's not clear to me at this stage anyway that bludgeoning them over the head is going to make any difference or make it any better. We have to work with them," he told U.S. National Public Radio.

Washington was hoping to get approval to send in a plane with aid that is ready to fly. Approval for such a flight would be significant, given the huge distrust and acrimony between the former Burma 's generals and Washington, which has imposed tough sanctions to try to end 46 years of military rule.

The storm pulverized the Irrawaddy delta with 120 miles (190 km) per hour winds followed by a 12-foot (3.7-metre) wave that levelled villages and caused most of the casualties and damage.

While Holmes said the United Nations estimated at least 1.5 million people were "severely affected", Britain 's U.N. ambassador, John Sawers, said it may be in the millions.

Myanmar state television did not give an update on Thursday night of the official death toll, which stood at 22,980 with 42,119 missing as of Tuesday. Diplomats and disaster experts said the real figure is likely to be much higher.

Shari Villarosa, charge d'affaires of the U.S. embassy in Myanmar, said on Wednesday the death toll may exceed 100,000.

U.N. officials who had earlier complained the generals were putting up obstacles to an emergency airlift, said half a dozen cargo planes had been allowed to land at Yangon airport.

"Responsibility to Protect"

France has suggested invoking a U.N. "responsibility to protect" to deliver aid to Myanmar without government approval. But its bid to make the Security Council take a stand has been rebuffed by China , Vietnam , South Africa and Russia . Indonesia and China spoke against politicising the issue.

"There is already a readiness on the part of Myanmar to open itself to assistance," Indonesian Ambassador Marty Natalegawa told reporters. "The last thing we would want is to give a political spin to the technical realities and the situation on the ground."

Sawers, the British envoy, suggested that Britain also had doubts about invoking the "responsibility to protect" idea.

"That (concept) relates to acts of genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and so forth, rather than responses to natural disasters," Sawers told reporters.

Thai Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej failed to reach Myanmar 's generals on Thursday due to communications problems after U.S. President George W. Bush asked him to intervene over the aid delays, Thailand 's government spokesman said.

"Some (aid) is getting through," World Vision Australia's chief executive officer Tim Costello told reporters in a conference call from Yangon. "But it's a trickle when it needs to be literally a flood."


(Additional reporting by Louis Charbonneau and Claudia Parsons at the United Nations; Kerstin Gehmlich in Berlin, Matthew Bigg in Atlanta; Nopporn Wong-Anan, Grant McCool and Darren Schuettler in Bangkok; Writing by Bill Tarrant; Editing by John Chalmers)

While the People Plead for Food, the Junta Is Handing Out TV Sets
By Andrew Buncombe
The Independent UK

Friday 09 May 2008

Nyung Wine, Burma - People in the Burmese village of Nyung Wine, barely more than an hour outside Rangoon, are wondering why no one has visited them. Of the approximatly 200 houses close to a glittering gold pagoda next to the Kyauktan river, an estimated 185 were damaged by Cyclone Nargis. "Nobody has been to help," said a villager, U San They, as he led the way through the ruins of homes smashed by the storm that swept the Irrawaddy delta last Saturday, killing at least 23,000 people and leaving 1.5 million people at risk, according to the latest estimates from the United Nations..

In a nearby village, U Mya Wine, a bamboo dealer, said two homes occupied by members of his family had been destroyed. "I am sad," he said. "The house is damaged; there is no electricity or water. If someone came it would make me happy. But there has been no one so I am sad in my heart."

The news from the disaster experts about Burma 's devastated delta region confirms the grim reality. An internal report by an international relief organisation says: "The situation at the temporary relief camps is horrific. There is no food. People have been relying on porridge. There is not enough shelter.

"People have just one set of clothes; some are even wearing jute bags. There is not enough drinking water. There are no sanitation facilities whatsoever. Many people have wounds that are not being attended. The estimated number of people in these 26 camps is 100,000."

Sheri Villarosa, the senior US diplomat in Burma, said she feared the death toll could reach 100,000.

But despite the obvious suffering, massive devastation and pressing need for urgent action, the Burmese authorities were continuing to insist yesterday that everything was under control. On the front page of the New Light of Myanmar - a state-run government publication - was a picture of the Prime Minister, Thein Sein, handing over 20 television sets and 10 DVD players as part of the "relief" operation. This, in a region where there has been no electricity since the 130mph storm struck.

What is required is water, food, medicine and sanitation facilities for hundreds of thousands of people, and an ability to deliver it to the remote areas where the storm did the most damage. Instead, what the government is providing is obstruction and further delay. Although the authoritiesfinally gave clearance yesterday for the first major international airlift of food, relief organisations complain that the junta is still failing to co-operate and will not even arrange visas for dozens of aid workers.

"There is a small time frame with any disaster before things go pear-shaped and we are very close to that point at the moment," said Christopher Kaye, the country director of the UN's World Food Programme. "There are stocks of food in the country; the big problem is getting out to these areas. The only people who have been allowed there are Burmese nationals and they have done so [but] no foreigners have got to those places."

Evidence gathered by relief organisations and others who have visited the southernmost extremities of the Irrawaddy delta reveals a horrific reality.

Bloated corpses have been washed upstream in the aftermath of the massive tidal surge, most left decaying where they lie as the survivors try to rebuild their homes and hunt for food and drinking water. Some of the dead have even been stripped of their clothes. Animal carcases float in the water in which people have to wash.

In the relief camps set up by the government for the homeless, there is concern about the potential outbreak of diseases, including cholera and malaria. There is also a worry that people's entire livelihoods, livestock, fishing boats or otherwise, have been destroyed. The rice paddies on which millions depend have been flooded with saltwater.

Richard Horsey, regional co-ordinator of the UN's humanitarian operation, said of the Burmese government: "It is imperative at thispoint that they do open up and allow a major international relief effort to get under way."

In New York , where the US ambassador to the UN expressed "outrage" at the junta's slowness in responding to offers of assistance, the chief humanitarian officer, John Holmes, said the UN was "disappointed" with the access granted.

Yet the government insists it has already taken the necessary steps. In the same newspaper that showed the Prime Minister handing over electronic goods, an article declared: "Various sub-committees formed for preparedness of natural disasters have visited the storm-hit areas and provided relief to the victims. Relief and resettlement measures are being taken."

A crucial question now is whether such sadness and frustration could result in protests of the sort that rocked Burma last September when tens of thousands of ordinary people and Buddhist monks took to the streets to demonstrate against the junta that has ruled the country for two decades.

A Western diplomat in Rangoon , who asked not to be named, said: "After September, it was not that the demonstrations eased off. The people were intimated off the streets but the authorities did not address the problems. If the situation here continues to deteriorate people are going to be increasingly desperate, so there is a potential for looting and violence. If the military come in shooting then they will turn against the military. There is a potential for political unrest."

Among new graffiti repeatedly written on underpasses in Rangoon were "X" marks, the symbol for voting "no" in this weekend's scheduled referendum for a new constitution that would cement the military's rule. The National League for Democracy opposition party, headed by Aung San Suu Kyi, has urged people to vote "no". Last night, the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, urged the junta to postpone the poll to concentrate on the relief effort.

Suu Kyi is under house arrest in Rangoon . Like millions of Burmese other than the military-linked elite, Cyclone Nargis has left the Nobel peace laureate using candles for light. A neighbour said her roof was damaged.

One Week After Cyclone, 17 Britons Are Still Missing

Seventeen Britons remain unaccounted for, but a Foreign Office spokeswoman said that with telephone lines down, problems with communications could be to blame. No British casualties have been reported. "We are aware of 17 British nationals that friends and family have not been able to make contact with," she said.

About 200 Britons live in Burma , while 7,500 British tourists are believed to visit the country every year. Britons residents in Burma were warned by the British embassy before Saturday of the incoming cyclone.

In the Commons yesterday, the Labour MP Denis MacShane urged the Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, to support the efforts by France at the UN to invoke the "right to protect" when a government deliberately fails to protect the lives of its citizens.

China and Indonesia rejected the French appeal in Security Council discussions. John Holmes, the UN chief humanitarian officer, said: "I'm not sure invading Myanmar would be a very sensible option."

Click to SUBSCRIBE ->

No comments: