U.N. Chief to Burma: Postpone Referendum, Focus on Relief

Published May 11, 2008

| Associated Press

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Thursday said he was "deeply concerned about the welfare of the people of Myanmar at this time of national tragedy" and called on Burma's government to postpone its planned referendum on a new constitution two days from now and "focus instead on mobilizing all available resources and capacity for the emergency response efforts."

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The U.N. humanitarian chief on Thursday called the situation in Burma--renamed Myanmar by the ruling military junta--"increasingly desperate" and estimated that 1.5 million people have been severely affected.

"There is a real danger that an even worse tragedy may unfold if we cannot get the aid that's desperately needed in quickly," Undersecretary-General John Holmes warned.

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While four relief flights from the U.N. World Food Porgram arrived in the capital, Yangon, on Thursday, he said progress has been limited trying to obtain visas and provide emergency supplies. "The frustrations have been growing that this humanitarian response is being held back because of difficulties of access in different ways," Holmes said.

Holmes said U.N. officials were pressing for speedy access but he warned that any "confrontation" with Burma's military rulers would not help those desperately in need of help.

"The humanitarian situation, as you know, is increasingly desperate on the ground, in the delta, because of the conditions that are obtained there," Holmes said. "The number of people that have been affected — we estimate that number at about 1.5 million people severely affected by the disaster."

Relief supplies from the United Nations began arriving in Burma Thursday, but U.S. military planes loaded with aid were still denied access by the country's isolationist regime five days after a devastating cyclone.

A U.S. official said the U.S. considering air-dropping aid to victims even without permission from the military government.

The director of the U.S. office of foreign disaster assistance said air drops are one option to help victims if the generals continue to limit outside aid and expertise.

The military junta also continued to stall on visas for U.N. teams seeking entry to ensure the aid is delivered to the victims amid fears that lack of safe food and drinking water could push the death toll above 100,000.

Airplanes carrying high-energy biscuits, medicine and other supplies arrived in Yangon, and others were to follow, U.N. officials said. The planes had waited for the last two days while the world body negotiated with the military regime to allow the material into the Southeast Asian nation.

In Yangon, the roof of Burma opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi was blown off and she was living in the dark after the electricity connection to her dilapidated lakeside bungalow was snapped in the cyclone, a neighbor said.

The Nobel Peace Prize laureate is using candles at night since she has no generator in her home, where she is being held under house arrest, said the neighbor, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.

U.S. Ambassador to Thailand Eric John told reporters that U.S. and Thai authorities earlier believe they had permission from Burma to land U.S. military C-130s. But Burma officials later made it clear that this was not the case.

John said it was not clear if they had reversed an earlier decision or if there was a misunderstanding.

Thailand Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej offered to negotiate on Washington's behalf to persuade the junta to accept U.S. aid.

The U.S. military, meanwhile, sent more humanitarian supplies and equipment to a staging area in Thailand. A C-17 transport plane with water and food landed Thursday, joining the two C-130s in place, Air Force spokeswoman Megan Orton said at the Pentagon. Another C-130 loaded with supplies was on its way, she said.

The Navy also has three ships participating in an exercise in the Gulf of Thailand that could help in any relief effort, including an amphibious assault ship with 23 helicopters aboard.

The Navy was sending helicopters from the USS Essex to the staging area in Thailand, a defense official said Thursday on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the record.

After they finish off-loading the helicopters, the Essex and the USS Juneau were expected to steam around the Malay Peninsula to be in a position closer to Burma.

The USS Harpers Ferry and a destroyer, the USS Mustin, were expected to head toward Burma on Friday, the official said.

Burma's generals, traditionally paranoid about foreign influence, issued an appeal for international assistance after the storm struck Saturday. They have since dragged their feet on issuing visas to relief workers even as survivors faced hunger, disease and flooding.

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner and British Foreign Secretary David Miliband asked Burma's junta to "lift all restrictions on the distribution of aid." The U.N. also called the government to let aid and aid workers in.

"It is imperative at this point that they do open up and allow a major international relief effort to get under way," Richard Horsey, who coordinates U.N. humanitarian aid out of Bangkok, told AP Television News.

The Association of Southeast Nations appealed to the international community to keep sending aid through Thailand.

"Please keep the help coming, keep the contributions coming, and if you have to, go to Thailand, park there and wait for redistribution from there," said ASEAN secretary-general Surin Pitsuwan.

Burma's state media said Cyclone Nargis killed at least 22,980 people and left 42,119 missing, mostly in the hardest-hit Irrawaddy delta. Shari Villarosa, who heads the U.S. Embassy in Yangon, said the number of dead could eventually exceed 100,000 because safe food and water were scarce and unsanitary conditions widespread.

Entire villages in the delta were still submerged from the storm, and bloated corpses could be seen stuck in the mangroves. Some survivors stripped clothes off the dead. People wailed as they described the horror of the torrent swept ashore by the cyclone.

"I don't know what happened to my wife and young children," said Phan Maung, 55, who held onto a coconut tree until the water level dropped. By then his family was gone.

The World Health Organization has received reports of malaria outbreaks in the worst-affected area, and fears of waterborne illnesses surfacing due to dirty water and poor sanitation also remained a concern, said Poonam Khetrapal Singh, deputy director of WHO's Southeast Asia office in New Delhi.

"Safe water, sanitation, safe food. These are things that we feel are priorities at the moment," she said.

Even near Yangon, the country's largest city, stricken villagers complained that they had received no government assistance and were relying on aid from Buddhist monasteries.

"The government is not helping us. No aid is coming. There is no money, no rice," said Mu Sanda, one of some 50 people huddled in a monastery dining room converted into an evacuation center in Kyauktan, 15 miles southeast of Yangon.

Even China, Burma's closest ally, urged the military junta to work with the international community. Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said China would give $4.3 million in aid in addition to an initial pledge of $1 million.

China Urges Myanmar to Work With International Community On Disaster Aid

Between 30 and 40 visas requested by various U.N. agencies and private relief groups are pending with the Burma government, Horsey said.

The U.N. said Thursday it has released $10 million from its emergency relief fund to help the cyclone victims.

UNICEF said it was shipping 3 million water purification tablets — enough to provide clean water to 200,000 people for a week — to from Denmark to Bangkok on Thursday. The agency hopes to transfer the shipment to Burma the following day.

The London-based human rights group Amnesty International said some donors were delaying aid for fear it would be siphoned off to the army.

The World Food Program's regional director, Anthony Banbury, indicated the United Nations had similar concerns.

"We will not just bring our supplies to an airport, dump it and take off," he said. "This is one reason why there is a hold up now, because we are going to bring in not just supplies but a lot of capacity to go with them to make sure the supplies get to the people."

Burma's state television Thursday showed Prime Minister Lt. Gen. Thein Sein distributing food packages to the sick and injured in the delta and soldiers dropping food over villages. The date of the distribution was not given.

Navy vessels from India and planes from Japan, Thailand, Singapore, Laos and Bangladesh had arrived in recent days with medicine, candles, instant noodles, raincoats and other relief supplies, it said.

Although most Yangon residents were preoccupied with trying to restore their lives, activists using the cover of an almost-total power outage have written fresh graffiti on overpasses.

The graffiti include "X" marks — a symbol for voting "no" in a referendum Saturday on a new military-backed constitution. Voting has been postponed until May 24 in Yangon, some outlying areas and parts of the delta heavily damaged by the storm.

State radio said "unscrupulous elements" were spreading rumors of an impending earthquake, a second cyclone and looting in Yangon. Residents say some looting occurred at markets and stores in suburbs of Yangon earlier this week.

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