Published May 11, 2008
WASHINGTON – The top U.S. diplomat in Burma says the death toll may reach 100,000 from a cyclone and its aftermath. She said the country's military junta is "paranoid," about the United States but is not blocking American aid in retaliation for past criticism.
U.S. charge d'affaires Shari Villarosa estimates show 95 percent of buildings in the affected area are demolished, bridges are washed out. She called the situation outside the former capital Yangon "increasingly horrendous," citing relief agency reports of shortages of food and drinking water.
"There is a very real risk of disease outbreaks as long as this continues," Villarosa told reporters in a telephone call from Yangon. The death toll could hit or exceed 100,000 as humanitarian conditions worsen, she said.
She said that almost all the deaths are in the delta area. In Yangon, some 600-700 people may have died, she said.
The U.S. military has put people and airplanes into position to work on any relief effort, as officials awaited word on whether the Asian nation would accept American help.
Condoleezza Rice said Wednesday that Burma, renamed Myanmar by the ruling military junta, must let the international community in to help. She said the aid is to meet the needs of a humanitarian crisis, and not a matter of politics, Reuters reported.
Villarosa did not sound optimistic.
"It's a very paranoid regime," she said. "They are very paranoid about the United States."
She said lower reaches of the Burma regime appear to recognize the magnitude of the problem, but the senior leadership is isolated and has not yet announced a final decision on how to handle outside aid.
She said she met with three ministers this week and is pressing hard to allow U.S. aid into the country. The junta is blocking aid from other nations, and does not appear to be singling out the United States because of the White House focus on human rights and other abuses in Burma, she said.
An Air Force C-130 landed in neighboring Thailand and another was on the way, Air Force spokeswoman Megan Orton said Wednesday morning at the Pentagon.
"When they accept, or if they accept — and we know what supplies they need — those planes will be there to transport those," she said.
A rapid deployment unit designed to be the first people inserted into an operation already works out of Thailand and is at the ready as well. "This is just a positioning of the planes and people," Orton said.
Three U.S. officials said they understood it was possible the Burmese government would only accept money from the United States and want to buy its own aid supplies — or that it would only accept U.S. assistance as part of the broader United Nations effort.
Navy and Marine Corps officials said they were in a holding position, awaiting word on whether they would be needed.
The Navy has three ships participating in an exercise in the Gulf of Thailand that could help in any relief effort — the USS Essex, the USS Juneau and the USS Harper's Ferry.
The Essex is an amphibious assault ship with 23 helicopters aboard, including 19 capable of lifting cargo from ship to shore, as well as more than 1,500 Marines.
One official said that if there is a U.S. relief operation, the Essex group would likely leave some of its assets behind so the multinational exercise can still be held, while moving other equipment forward to help Burma.
Because it would take the Essex more than four days to get into position, another official said, the Navy is considering sending some of its helicopters ahead. The aircraft would be able to arrive in a matter of hours, and the Essex could follow, he said, speaking on condition of anonymity because that effort was still in the planning stages.
The White House said Tuesday the U.S. will send more than $3 million to help victims of the devastating cyclone in Burma, up from an initial emergency contribution of $250,000.
The additional commitment of funds, announced by White House press secretary Dana Perino, came as Burma continued to resist entry for a U.S. disaster assessment team. The Bush administration said permission for such a team to enter the Southeast Asian nation and look at the damage would allow quicker and larger aid contributions.
The State Department said Wednesday it was pressing Burmese authorities directly in Yangon and Washington to accept the aid and was also asking Burma's neighbors and traditional friends, including China, India, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia and Thailand to help make the case.
The message is: "Use what leverage you have with the Burmese government to get them to allow in outside assistance teams so they can help make an assessment and provide on-the-gound assistance to help out with what is very clearly a humanitarian disaster of immense scope," said spokesman Sean McCormack.
In the meantime, the decision was made to funnel $3 million more to the disaster-stricken zone. Perino said the money would be allocated by a USAID disaster response team that is already positioned in Thailand.
The Treasury Department moved to make it easier for relief agencies and religious organizations to provide assistance to cyclone victims by issuing a blanket license for them to receive financial contributions from United States. Under existing U.S. sanctions on Burma, such transactions normally require individual licenses.