Published May 11, 2008
YANGON, Burma – More aid is on the way to cyclone-ravaged Burma— but so is the heavy rain.
A week after Cyclone Nargis flattened low-lying villages and killed whole families at a time, the military junta finally agreed Friday to allow a U.S. cargo plane to bring in food and other supplies to the isolated country. Burma —renamed Myanmar by the ruling military junta —gave the green light after confiscating other shipments, prompting the U.N. to order a temporary freeze in shipments.
The U.N. agreed to resume flights but relief workers, including Americans, were still being barred entry.
With phone lines down, roads blocked and electricity networks destroyed, it was nearly impossible to reach isolated areas in the swamped Irrawaddy delta, where the stench of unburied and decaying bodies added to the misery.
Heavy rain that is forecast in the next week is certain to worsen the plight of almost 2 million people awaiting food, clean water, shelter and medicine.
Diplomats and aid groups warned that the number of dead could eventually exceed 100,000 because of illness and said thousands of children may have been orphaned.
Survivors in one of the worst-affected areas, near the town of Bogalay about 20 miles inland, were among those fighting hunger, illness and wrenching loneliness.
"All my 28 family members have died," said Thein Myint, a 68-year-old fisherman who was overcome by tears and trauma as he tried to explain how the May 3 cyclone swept away the rest of his family. "I am the only survivor."
Survivors were sleeping amid the debris of their splintered homes in Bogalay, where more than 95 percent of the houses were destroyed.
Officials have said only one out of 10 people who are homeless, injured or threatened by disease and hunger have received some kind of aid in the week since the cyclone hit.
The government, which wants full control of relief operations, has less than 40 helicopters, most of them small or old. It also has only about 15 transport planes, primarily small jets unable to carry hundreds of tons of supplies.
"Not only don't they have the capacity to deliver assistance, they don't have experience," said Mark Farmaner, director of the pro-democracy Burma Campaign UK. "It's already too late for many people. Every day of delays is costing thousands of lives."
On Friday, Burma's military rulers seized two planeloads containing enough high-energy biscuits to feed 95,000 people sent by the U.N. World Food Program, which briefly suspended help after the action. The U.N. later agreed to send two more planes to help survivors.
The government acknowledged taking control of the shipments and said it plans to distribute the aid itself to affected areas.
In a statement e-mailed to The Associated Press, government spokesman Ye Htut said the junta had clearly stated what it would do and denied the action amounted to a seizure.
"I would like to know which person or organization (made these) these baseless accusations," he said.
The U.N. has grown increasingly critical of Burma's refusal to let in foreign aid workers who could assess the extent of the disaster with the junta apparently overwhelmed. None of the 10 visa applications submitted by the WFP has been approved.
Shari Villarosa, the U.S. charge d'affairs in Yangon, said she met with Burma's Deputy Foreign Minister Kyaw Thu on Friday to discuss American relief operations.
Burma says it will accept aid from all countries, but prohibits the entry of foreign workers who would deliver and manage the operations. The junta is not ready to change that position, Villarosa said she was told.
But Burma, has agreed to allow a single U.S. cargo aircraft to bring in relief supplies for victims of a cyclone, said Maj. Stuart Upton, a Pentagon spokesman.
"We hope that this is the beginning of broader support between the United States and Burma to help the Burmese people," he said.
The U.S. has an enormous ability to deliver aid quickly, evident during the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that killed 230,000 people in a dozen nations.
Three Red Cross aid flights loaded with shelter kits and other supplies landed Friday in Myanmar without incident. "We are not experiencing any problems getting in, (unlike) the United Nations," said Danish Red Cross spokesman Hans Beck Gregersen.
More than 60,000 people are dead or missing and entire villages are submerged in the Irrawaddy delta. International aid organizations say the death toll could climb to more than 100,000.
The U.N. estimates 1.5 million people have been severely affected and has voiced concern about the disposal of dead bodies.
"Many are not buried and lie in the water. They have started rotting and the stench is beyond words," Anders Ladekarl, head of the Danish Red Cross.
About 20,000 body bags were being sent so volunteers from the Burmese chapter of the Red Cross can start collecting bodies, he said.
The U.N.'s World Meteorological Organization said its models forecast three days of strong rain that could dump 4 inches in Burma beginning May 15-16. Heavy rain could worsen the situation in the storm-affected coastal region, the agency said, although it cautioned that forecasts beyond five days could change.
The lack of food and water have led to dramatic price increases. In Yangon, Burma's main city, the cost of water has shot up by more than 500 percent, and rice and oil by 60 percent in the last three days, the Danish Red Cross said.
The United Nations is seeking $187 million in pledges from donor nations to help survivors.
"If we do not act now, and if we do not act fast, more lives will be lost," said John Holmes, the undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs.
U.N. officials said the pledges are needed to provide food, water purification tablets, emergency health kits, mosquito nets, cooking sets, plastic sheeting and water jugs for at least 1.5 million people in the next three months.
"Myanmar intends to cooperate with the international community to address this great challenge," said Kyaw Tint Swe, Burma's U.N. ambassador. But, he added: "It has to be orderly and systematic."
The U.N. requires that experienced aid workers accompany relief supplies in every recipient country until they are delivered, officials said.
"Those are the rules," said Elisabeth Byrs, spokeswoman for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. "We have to be sure the aid is reaching the victims."
The junta said it was grateful to the international community for its assistance but the best way to help was to send in material rather than personnel.
Relief workers have reached 220,000 cyclone victims, only a fraction of the number of people affected, the Red Cross said.
"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."
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 junta said. It said the plane had flown in from Qatar.
According to state media, 23,335 people died and 37,019 are missing from Cyclone Nargis.
Grim assessments were made about what lies ahead. 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.