Myanmar aid effort stalls as French ship turns back
The French ship carrying 1,000 tonnes of aid could not be directly distributed and had to be sent to World Food Programme in Thailand instead.26 May 2008
YANGON - Efforts to deliver life-saving aid to Myanmar's cyclone victims hit trouble Monday as France turned back a ship laden with supplies, citing its shock at the resistance of Yangon's military regime.
The military vessel carrying 1,000 tonnes of aid for the battered Irrawaddy Delta was instead sent to Thailand to be handed to the World Food Programme for distribution, the French defence and foreign ministries said in a statement.
The move was a further blow to the international community's attempts to help desperate survivors still short of food, water and shelter more than three weeks after Cyclone Nargis hit the country.
The French ship, the Mistral, had been poised to deliver enough aid to help 100,000 people.
The ministries said they were "particularly shocked that the Myanmar authorities did not accept that 1,000 tonnes of humanitarian aid... could not be directly unloaded and distributed."
"Nothing... can justify the victims of a catastrophe being denied the basic right to the necessary aid," the ministerial statement said late Sunday.
At a conference in Yangon earlier, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon had led calls for Myanmar to make good on a pledge to let outsiders in, with 2.4 million victims needing help and many at risk of dying from hunger or disease.
Officials put the best possible spin on a day-long meeting of representatives from dozens of nations, aid agencies and the secretive military regime, which has enraged world opinion with its handling of the catastrophe.
Ban called the event an "important exercise for building greater trust and cooperation" between Myanmar and the outside world, although participants said it was unclear how much money had actually been pledged.
But the French statement appeared to cast further doubt on the promises of Myanmar's ruling generals to accept help and speed up the relief effort.
The 2-3 May cyclone has left more than 133,000 dead or missing and access to devastated areas has been extremely limited by Myanmar's secretive generals.
In comments echoed by most nations at Sunday's donors conference, Ban rejected Myanmar's insistence that the emergency relief phase was over and that it was now time to focus on rebuilding the delta.
"I expect the relief effort will run for several months, probably six months at least, as we feed and care for those who have lost everything," Ban said to open the meeting, which was attended by Myanmar's Prime Minister Thein Sein.
"I ask all of us to keep our eye firmly on the immediate objective - saving lives."
Making the first visit of a UN secretary general to Myanmar for more than four decades, Ban held talks with secretive junta leader Than Shwe on Friday - and announced that the general had agreed to let in all foreign aid workers.
At Sunday's conference Thein Sein said Myanmar would accept foreign workers, but appeared to link their admission with rebuilding work in particular.
"For those groups who are interested in rehabilitation and reconstruction, my government is ready to accept them, in accordance with our priorities and the extent of work that needs to be done," Thein Sein said.
"We will consider allowing them if they wish to engage in rehabilitation and reconstruction work."
Upon his return to Thailand from Yangon late Sunday, Ban told reporters: "I sincerely hope they will honour their commitment."
Once known as Burma and now one of the most isolated countries on the planet, Myanmar has often reneged on its commitments - but nations at the conference warned they would push the junta to get aid workers in.
The storm washed away entire villages and ruined crucial rice fields that are essential to feed the impoverished nation. The European Union's top aid official has already warned there could be a famine ahead.
The United Nations and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the co-hosts of the donor conference, have approval to coordinate an expanded aid operation.
[AFP / Expatica]