Patience wears thin for Myanmar

Pressure mounts on government to facilitate entry of aid to deal with disaster.

    Residents attempt to repair their shattered homes [AFP]

    The UN says it is "disappointed" with Myanmar over its failure to allow foreign relief workers and supplies into the country quickly after being hit by one of the worst cyclones in living memory.


    The UN's secretary-general has called on the country's military rulers to postpone a referendum due on Saturday on the country's constitution. Despite more than a million people being left homeless after Cyclone Nargis swept through the country on Saturday leaving an estimated 100,000 people dead, the government plans to press ahead with the vote.


    International attempts to get relief supplies and aid workers into the isolationist country were still encountering problems on Thursday, six days after the cyclone hit, with many residents remaining without food and shelter. Corpses rotting in the flood waters are adding to the health hazard.


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    John Holmes, the UN humanitarian chief, told reporters on Thursday: "I am disappointed that we have not had more results.


    "We need to continue to urge the government to co-operate," he said referring to discussions with the Myanmar government about enabling the arrival of disaster relief teams into the country.


    Holmes said Ban Ki-moon, the UN chief, was trying to talk to Than Shwe, Myanmar's military leader, to urge him "strongly to facilitate access" for foreign relief workers.


    "They have opened up to some extent. They have not refused entry [to foreign aid workers]. But they have not facilitated entry... It is not as open as it should be," he said.


    However, the UN official rejected criticism that he had not been more forceful in pressing Myanmar.


    "I do not believe confrontation with the government is likely to result in more help" for the cyclone victims, he said.


    'Desperate' situation


    Two Asian UN disaster assessment experts are now on the ground in Myanmar.


    However, Holmes said two others who were thought to have been cleared for entry were not allowed in "for reasons we are still trying to establish".


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    At least 40 visa applications from UN aid workers are pending.


    Holmes described the situation in Myanmar as "increasingly desperate on the ground".


    An estimated one million people have been left homeless and 100,000 may have been killed by the cyclone, according to a US diplomat in the former capital, Yangon. 


    Some supplies have begun to arrive in Myanmar.


    Four World Food Programme flights arrived in Myanmar on Thursday and 40 tons of high-energy biscuits are on the ground in Yangon.


    Holmes said the authorities have also agreed that customs charges and clearances should be waived for aid delivery, but he noted that it was unclear whether the policy was fully operational on the ground.


    Stalled US aid 


    A US state department official earlier hinted that it was considering dropping food aid over parts of the disaster zones, without Myanmar's approval.


    However, Robert Gates, the US defence secretary says the US needs permission from the government but that the military is moving aircraft and ships into place to help deliver humanitarian supplies once permission is granted.


    Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, said an air drop is a matter of Myanmar's national sovereignty.


    International pressure


    Ban has called on Myanmar's government to postpone this Saturday's constitutional referendum and focus on the relief effort, his press office said on Thursday.


    The foreign ministers of France and Britain and Germany also urged Myanmar's leaders to let foreign aid into the country.


    In a joint letter in Le Monde newspaper, Bernard Kouchner, the French foreign minister, and David Miliband, the British foreign secretary, asked Myanmar's leaders to "lift all restrictions on the distribution of aid".


    Fear of disease


    As of early Thursday Myanmar's government has said the confirmed toll stood at 22,980 with more than 42,000 others missing.


    With little or no aid reaching the survivors, fears of disease are rising every hour.


    Richard Bridle, deputy regional director of Unicef, the UN children's fund, told Al Jazeera: "Most people will be drinking bad water and we do have a clear and present danger of that leading on to very contagious diarrhoea diseases." 


    He said the top priority was to ensure an adequate and safe drinking water supply, but that essential specialist staff were yet to receive visas.


    "We badly need to get specialist staff into the country and we would appeal to the authorities in Myanmar to make that entry a lot easier," he said. 


    Aid commitments to Myanmar



    United Nations: Will release a minimum of $10m, launching a "flash appeal" to raise much more money.


    International Red Cross: $189,000. Relief workers distributing drinking water, clothing, food, plastic tarpaulins and hygiene kits.


    Myanmar Red Cross: 5 billion kyats ($4.5m) for relief and resettlement work. Distributing insecticide-treated bed nets and water purification tablets.


    Australian World Vision: $2.8m for first month of relief operations.




    European Commission: $3m for fast-track humanitarian aid.


    US: $3m, up from initial $250,000 immediate emergency aid.


    China: $500,000 in cash; materials including tents, blankets and biscuits worth a further $500,000.


    India: Two naval ships loaded with food, tents, blankets, clothing and medicines sent to Yangon.


    Japan: $267,570 worth of emergency aid in tents, power generators and other supplies.


    Australia: Initial $2.8m in emergency aid, with $1m going to aid agencies to help provide shelter, water purification and food.


    Thailand: Transport plane loaded with food and medicine sent to Yangon.


    (All figures in US$)






















    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and agencies


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