UN makes urgent Myanmar appeal

UN humanitarian chief seeks $187m after devastation of Cyclone Nargis.

    Some of the homeless have found shelter in refugee camps  [GALLO/GETTY]

    The UN is appealing for $187m to provide aid over a period of six months to those affected by the devastating cyclone in Myanmar.

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    The "flash appeal" will "enable international partners ... to  support the government of Myanmar in addressing the needs of more than 1,500,000 people affected by the cyclone", a UN statement said.

    The international partners include 10 UN organisations and nine NGOs.

    The appeal was issued by John Holmes, the UN humanitarian chief, during a meeting of 192 member states at the UN headquarters in New York.

    Holmes' appeal comes as the UN said on Friday that it would resume aid flights into Myanmar after a suspension triggered by a tussle with the military government over two planeloads of goods meant for cyclone survivors.
    The Myanmar government has refused to allow foreign relief workers to direct the relief effort after the disaster which struck a week ago, drawing condemnation from the UN and world leaders.


    Up to 100,000 people may have been killed by Cyclone Nargis, and at least one million people have been left without shelter. Many are without food and clean water.


    Nancy Roman, World Food Programme (WFP) director of public policy and communications, said: "The World Food Programme has decided to send in two relief flights as planned tomorrow, while discussions continue with the government of Myanmar on the distribution of the food that was flown in today, and not released to WFP."

    Later on Friday, the White House welcomed news from Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, that it would accept US emergency aid, and said one military cargo plane carrying supplies would reach the country on Monday.
    "One flight is much better than no flights," said Gordon Johndroe, a spokesman, who told reporters US officials were trying to determine what supplies were most needed.


    Mounting frustration


    Underscoring mounting frustration, Paul Risley, a spokesman for the WFP office in Bangkok, Thailand, called Myanmar's refusal to grant visas to foreign aid teams "unprecedented in modern humanitarian relief efforts".

    He said the organisation had submitted applications with Myanmar diplomatic missions around the world, but all had been caught up in paperwork.


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    Mark Canning, Britain's ambassador to Myanmar, told Al Jazeera that the relief operation for Myanmar is likely to be twice the size of that in Aceh, Indonesia, after the 2004 tsunami.


    "The scale of this catastrophe is becoming clearer all the time. The official death toll is around 23,000, but I'm afraid it's going to escalate dramatically in the coming days," he said.

    "There are between one and one and a half million people who are thought to be vulnerable. The conditions are horrendous.


    "Some aid is getting through. Some UN and other flights, some World Food Programme convoys, are getting through. But they're not getting through fast enough, not in the volume that is needed."


    Some supplies have been allowed to land, but many more tonnes of aid and dozens of expert foreign staff have not.

    Christina Fink, an expert on Myanmar, told Al Jazeera that the government is justifying its delays through a "security perspective".

    She said: "They are under the impression that if they let international aid into the country, the world will see how they are violating the rights of their people, how they have grossly mismanaged funds and finance that should essentially go to the impoverished.

    "This is a case of damage-control. They are trying very hard to cover many things up."


    Al Jazeera's correspondent, who is in the Irrawaddy delta and not being named for her own safety, found 500 refugees crowded into a Catholic school, all of them with injuries.


    "Most of them arrived in the village naked, they had no food, no shelter," she reported.


    "The church is relying on local people to give rice, to give clean water, to give clothes."


    US 'outraged'


    On Thursday, Zalmay Khalilzad, the US ambassador at the UN, expressed outrage at Myanmar's government for its foot-dragging.


    Khalilzad said that the US was "outraged by the slowness of the response of the government of Burma to welcome and accept assistance".


    "It's clear that the government's ability to deal with the situation, which is catastrophic, is limited ... you would expect the government to welcome assistance from others," he said.


    Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary-general, has called on the ruling generals to postpone a referendum due on Saturday on the country's constitution.


    Myanmar indicated on Friday that while it wanted relief supplies, foreign aid personnel were not being called for, and that the referendum would go ahead.


    A foreign ministry statement said the government had given priority to receiving aid from abroad but was using its own nationals to deliver it.

    The government turned back aid workers and media who arrived on a flight from Qatar on Thursday because they had not been given permission to enter the country, the ministry said.


    The threat of disease and starvation
    looms large as aid is slow to arrive [AFP]

    'Increasingly desperate'


    Corpses rotting in the flood waters are adding to the risk of disease.


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


    But 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" Holmes said.


    He added that the authorities also agreed that customs charges and clearances should be waived for aid delivery, but said it was unclear if the policy had been implemented.




    Among those stranded on the border with Thailand are 10 members of a USAid disaster response team.


    Eric John, the US ambassador to Thailand, told reporters in Bangkok on Thursday that the US was "in a long line of nations who are ready, willing and able to help, but also, of course, in a long line of nations the Burmese don't trust".

    A clearer picture of the devastation
    will not be known for some time [AFP]

    "It's more than frustrating. It's a tragedy," he said.


    A US state department official hinted that it was considering dropping food aid without Myanmar's approval.


    But the Pentagon said it would not consider such a move. Aside from violating Myanmar's airspace, the US authorities worry that such an unauthorised operation might fail to deliver to those most in need.


    Robert Gates, the US defence secretary, said the US needed permission from the government but US air force transport aircraft packed with supplies and US navy ships in the area are all ready to enter



    With the Irrawaddy delta's roads washed out and the infrastructure in shambles, large areas are accessible only by air.


    Tim Costello, chief executive of World Vision Australia, said that "it's certainly the case that the Americans, as they showed in the tsunami, have extraordinary capacity".


    During the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, US helicopters from the USS Abraham Lincoln flew missions to isolated communities along the Indonesian coast in the biggest US military operation in South-East Asia since the Vietnam war.


    Samak Sundaravej, Thailand's prime minister, has offered to negotiate on Washington's behalf to persuade Myanmar's government to accept US assistance.


    Intervention urged


    France is arguing that the UN has the power to intervene without Myanmar's approval under a 2005 agreement that the world body has a "responsibility to protect" people when governments fail to.


    That agreement did not mention natural disasters.


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

    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: $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.




    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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