WASHINGTON – The governing military junta in Myanmar has agreed to allow a single U.S. cargo aircraft to bring in relief supplies for victims of a devastating cyclone, Bush administration officials said Friday.
White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said the United States welcomed the go-ahead to land a U.S. military C-130 in the country on Monday. He said he hopes this is the beginning of continued aid flowing into the country from the United States and other nations and international relief agencies.
Earlier Friday, Ky Luu, director of the U.S. office of foreign disaster assistance, had said that skilled aid workers were being forced to sit on the sidelines as victims of last week's cyclone die. His comments reflect mounting frustration among the United States and other countries as they wait for permission from the military-led government to begin trying to help.
Said Johndroe: "We will continue to work with the government of Burma to allow other assistance. We hope that this is the beginning of a long line of assistance from the United States to Burma." Myanmar is also known as Burma.
Johndroe also said that while the U.S. still has limited leeway to help, "One flight is much better than no flights."
"They're going to need our help for a long time," Johndroe said. He spoke in Crawford, Texas, where President Bush's daughter, Jenna, will be wed on Saturday.
The breakthrough came after days of waiting on the U.S. side. It is not yet known what supplies will be included. U.S. aircraft have been positioned in Thailand and elsewhere nearby waiting for permission to transport supplies to the cyclone-devastated country.
The U.S. military has C-130 cargo aircraft and about a dozen helicopters in the region, ready to fly supplies into Myanmar. Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said Friday that the aircraft could reach Myanmar in a few hours.
In addition, U.S. Navy ships have begun moving from the Gulf of Thailand toward Myanmar to be available if needed.
Johndroe said he could not speak to one specific cause for the breakthrough, but added: "Clearly the junta has determined that the magnitude of this disaster requires additional assistance."
Myanmar has been under military rule since 1962. The current junta came to power after snuffing out a 1988 pro-democracy movement against the previous military dictatorship, killing at least 3,000 people in the process. The junta also violently crushed protests last year.
Luu had urged the generals to allow access to foreign aid teams, including a group of U.S. specialists waiting in Thailand; he said desperately needed supplies are piling up on airport tarmacs.
"This is a very vulnerable population, and a shock of this magnitude is going to take people right off the cliff," Luu told an audience at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a foreign affairs think tank in Washington.
He said the message to the junta is clear: If it allows U.S. officials in, "we will be able to make a difference."
"People are dying, and it's approaching a week," he said.
Myanmar's ruling military junta earlier seized two planeloads of critical aid sent by the U.N. The U.N. food program suspended help after the action, but later said it is sending two planes to Myanmar to help hungry and homeless survivors.
Officials have said that up to 1.9 million people are homeless, injured or threatened by disease and hunger, and only one out of 10 have received some kind of aid in the six days since the cyclone hit.
Tony Banbury, Asia director for the U.N. World Food Program, said by satellite from Thailand that the "big issue" is: What are the Myanmar authorities going to do? The WFP, he said, will keep working, but "I don't think we have much leverage with the authorities."
"Our hands are getting more and more tied," he said. "The situation is obviously desperate."
Sein Win, an exiled leader of Myanmar's opposition, said in an interview that the United States and other nations must more strongly pressure China, which is seen as having significant economic and political influence with Myanmar's generals.
"The world is not telling China to do what they should do ... to save people," Win said. He added that China has leverage over Myanmar; "the question is whether they are going to use it or not."