The Bangkok Post, May 7, 2008
Rangoon, Burma -- The military junta has appealed for international aid to cyclone victims, but five days after the storm experts cannot even reach victims. In Bangkok, the embassy simply took Monday off for a holiday rather than issue visas, further frustrating would-be aid teams.
Thailand plans to ship 40 tonnes of food and medical supplies on Wednesday, but there is no sign the aid can be delivered from the airport to the needy.
Nine tonnes of food and medicine were loaded on a Royal Thai Air Force C-130 cargo plane which flew to Rangoon yesterday. It was the first international aid to reach Burma - four days after the storm.
Hundreds of thousands have been left homeless and without basic utilities by the cyclone, which killed at least an estimated 15,000 people and left up to a million Burmese homeless and without basic water, food and electricity supplies.
Efforts to send urgently needed aid teams into the disaster-torn country were being hampered as the regime stalled over granting visas, the UN said in Geneva on Tuesday.
The ruling junta has said it welcomed international aid. "We need aid from both local and foreign sources," Information Minister Kyaw Hsan told a press conference again on Tuesday. "It is welcome."
Perhaps so, but the United Nations is facing "enormous difficulties" making an assessment of the disaster wrought by Cyclone Nargis on central Burma, which is likely to hamper any emergency aid programme in the devastated countryside.
The UN had around 40 people from its Burma office on the ground inside the country, said a spokesman, but its special five-man disaster assessment team (UNDAC) was in Thailand awaiting visas. So were staff from other humanitarian agencies. So were workers from Unicef.
"We are facing enormous difficulties right now in getting out there and unless there is an assessment ... the first thing you need is an assessment and then you can gauge your response on that," said Aye Win, spokesman for the United Nations Information Centre (UNIC) in Rangoon.
The International Federation of the Red Cross said it had around 60 full time staff and 18,000 volunteers providing front-line emergency aid in addition to the staff from the UN and other aid agencies.
The Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said at a briefing in Geneva, it could not predict what impact the delays might have on the eventual death toll.
Instead of going to Burma, most workers of UN agencies and international aid agencies gathered in Bangkok Tuesday morning to prepare emergency aid plans for the country, where the cyclone claimed more than 15,000 lives and has left hundreds of thousands homeless.
Even the meeting went poorly, stalled by the lack of a proper assessment of the situation, sources said.
"The UNDP (United Nations Development Programme) sent four teams to the Irrawaddy Delta region last night and today to make assessments, but you've got to understand that a
"The UN support system is not sufficient inside" Burma, said Terje Skavdal, regional director of the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), in an interview Monday. The UNOCHA headed the Bangkok meetings.
The military junta has earned a reputation for poor macro-economic management, let alone disaster-management.
Public funds to handle the crisis are severely limited, sources said.
But the UN will not be able to launch its disaster-relief programme until a proper assessment of the disaster is in hand, and given the extent of the infrastructure damage in the Irrawaddy Division, such an assessment will take time to complete.
Even in Rangoon, the country's largest city, people remained largely without electricity, piped water and communications on Tuesday, four days after the cyclone struck.
"There has been some progress but there is still the problem of water scarcity, and the danger of diseases outbreaks, and this is just in Rangoon," said Aye Win.
Several countries have pledged aid to Burma - including $3 million from the European Union, $750,000 from Germany, $250,000 from the United States and two ships of supplies from India - to cope with the humanitarian catastrophe caused by the cyclone.
Thailand and China each flew a military plane filled with aid to Burma, but the material was simply dropped aet the airport.
The Royal Thai Air Force flew in more than $300,000 worth of medical and food aid, and a planeload of similar supplies from China was also sent. But what happened to it is largely a mystery.
"We can't yet provide any details" on how aid will be developed to the people who need it, said Maj-Gen Maung Maung Swe, minister of social welfare and resettlement, who attended the press conference with the information minister