MYANMAR: Offers of help face logistics and visa hurdles
A NASA satellite map of Myanmar before and after cyclone Nargis
BANGKOK, 6 May 2008 (IRIN) - Myanmar’s military government yesterday defended its handling of the relief effort after a devastating cyclone swept across the south of the country, while foreign aid workers waited anxiously in Bangkok, Thailand, for clearance to launch a major relief effort.
In a rare press conference, information minister Brig-Gen Kyaw Hsan defended the military’s crisis response, saying the government was “doing its best” to help the victims, and reiterated the desire for international assistance to cope with the crisis.
“The task is very wide and extensive, and the government needs the cooperation of the people and well-wishers from at home and abroad,” the minister told a news conference in the capital, Yangon, three days after tropical cyclone Nargis slammed into the country.
Shortly after his press conference, state television reported that the death toll from the disaster had soared to over 22,000, with another 40,000 people missing.
UN humanitarian officials now estimate that one million survivors are in urgent need of relief supplies, especially in the low-lying delta of the Irrawaddy River, which was swamped by a massive storm surge, and much of which may remain submerged.
Yangon, Myanmar's largest city, has been without power since the storm, and the authorities admit that repairing the electricity grid will be a huge, time-consuming job, while the prices of food and other essentials in the city are reported to be sky-rocketing.
The military government has received offers of a wide range of assistance, from emergency relief materials to much-needed logistical help to reach some of the remote, now isolated regions. However, the military rulers have yet to open the country’s doors to this assistance.
On Tuesday US President George Bush even offered to send American naval forces to help in search-and-rescue and relief operations. US officials said the US had two naval ships conducting disaster response exercises, loaded with fresh drinking water and temporary shelters, two days’ sailing from the disaster area.
“We’re prepared to help move US Navy assets to help find those who have lost their lives, to help find the missing, and to help stabilise the situation,” Bush said. “Let the US come and help you help the people.”
In Bangkok, UN officials were waiting anxiously for visas so they could begin a potentially massive relief operation. “The OCHA [Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs] team has assembled in Bangkok and is ready to deploy as soon as possible,” said Richard Horsey, a spokesman for the OCHA. “We are waiting for the green light on visas.”
So far, shipments of emergency relief supplies from India, Thailand and other Asian countries have been sent, and the local Red Cross has also been distributing materials they had stockpiled in the country. Major donors have made multimillion-dollar funding pledges and some non-governmental organisations have launched appeals for cash.
Horsey said that, given the lack of transportation, aid agencies were struggling to get supplies into the remote areas where they were needed. The military has made some helicopters and boats available to carry supplies to remote areas, but it appears that far more will be needed.
“The major bottleneck will be the local delivery, rather than getting stuff in to the Rangoon [former name of Yangon] airport,” Horsey said. “We need distribution channels.”
Analysts say Myanmar’s generals are unlikely to follow the example of Indonesia and other countries hit by the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, which allowed US military forces and their equipment to help in the wake of the disaster.
Sean Turnell, an economics professor at Australia’s Macquarie University, said he believed the military was still anxious about throwing open their doors to an onslaught of foreign aid workers. “The regime worries that events could move out of their control if they let in Western aid groups.”