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Global aid effort delayed by Myanmar’s red tape

8 May 2008

BANGKOK / YANGON – A massive international disaster-relief effort for cyclone-devastated Myanmar was being hindered on Thursday, five days after the catastrophe, by red tape and delays imposed by the military government, diplomats and officials said.

"A few visas are coming through, but the general picture is that a significant number of the key staff have not got their visas approved," said Richard Horsey, spokesman for the United Nations disaster response office in Bangkok.

"Clearly, this is a concern because it is very important that those staff with disaster response experience and coordinating can deploy as quickly as possible," Horsey said.

"What you basically need to get is a logistical pipeline that is big enough and running smoothly enough to channel humanitarian relief from outside the country to the people who need it."

Similar emergency missions organised by Western governments were having trouble getting off the ground.

The US government, which has pledged USD 3.25 million in assistance for Myanmar, was on Thursday denied permission to use a Thai military C-130 cargo plane to deliver emergency goods from Bangkok to Yangon and their Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART) were not granted visas.

"I’m optimistic that the Burmese authorities are going to make the right decision on the C-130 plane and the visas," said US Ambassador to Thailand Eric John. "There is a need for speed," he added.

Myanmar’s military regime has appealed for international aid to cope with the massive destruction wrought by Cyclone Nargis, which smashed into central Myanmar on 2 and 3 May.

According to the government, nearly 23,000 people were killed and as many as 42,000 were missing, with most of the victims in the Irrawaddy Delta.
But Shari Villarosa, the US charge d’affaires in Yangon, and dissident groups on the Thai border said the death toll could reach 100,000.

An estimated 1.5 million people are without food, water and medicines, according to the UN.

Although aid has poured in from around the globe, the relief programme has been hampered by the Myanmar government’s refusal to waive visa requirements for aid workers and tardiness in granting visas to even the most critically needed UN experts.

Efforts are underway within the country to deal with the crisis, although aid workers are facing numerous difficulties getting supplies out to the hardest-hit areas in the Irrawaddy.

An attempt by the World Food Programme (WFP) to send truckloads of food to Labutta, where more than 1,000 people died, was delayed Wednesday by the truck owners’ security concerns.

"There are a lot of hungry people out there," said Chris Kaye, the World Food Programme director in Myanmar, explaining the truckers concerns.

The WFP has had more luck distributing food and supplies to Yangon, but even towns close to the former capital have received no assistance.

"The government has sent us nothing," said Soe Win, a resident of Wapalaungpaung town in Kawhmu district, about 35 kilometres south of Yangon. Soe Win’s sister-in-law and 7-year-old nephew were killed by a tree that was knocked over by the cyclone.

"Everyone is angry. My town will certainly vote no in the upcoming referendum," he said.  

The disaster has caught the ruling junta at a sensitive time politically.

The regime is holding a referendum on Saturday aimed at winning popular approval for a constitution that promises to cement the military’s dominant role in Myanmar politics.

Myanmar has been under military dictatorships since 1962. The current regime has earned itself pariah status among Western democracies for repeatedly crushing anti-government protests and refusing to hasten moves toward democracy.

Critics of the regime charged that it is deliberately hampering the granting of visas so it could claim the credit for relief work in the countryside.

But the enormity of the disaster is likely to force the regime to loosen visa restrictions on aid workers or face the prospect of mounting casualties to hunger and disease.

"This is a critical moment for Myanmar’s vulnerable populations," warned the UN Information Centre in Yangon. "In the next few days, assessments must be provided or thousands more could die."

[dpa / ANP / Expatica]