More aid finally reaches cyclone victims
Food and water reached cyclone victims in greater amounts yesterday after many roads were cleared, but there was no sign Myanmar's military rulers would allow foreign experts to handle the distribution, international aid groups said.
The junta says it only wants international relief material and money but not the people to manage it. It wants to hand out all donated supplies on its own to an estimated 2 million people who are without food or shelter, facing the threat of diseases, after the May 3 Cyclone Nargis.
"Visas for international humanitarian personnel remain a critical issue, and one on which the UN and Myanmar's regional partners are engaged," an internal report of the United Nations humanitarian coordinating agency said.
According to the government, 23,335 people died and 37,019 are missing. Some international aid organisations say the death toll could climb to more than 100,000 as conditions worsen.
However, British aid group Oxfam warned Sunday that the lives of up to 1.5 million cyclone victims are in danger from diseases if clean water and sanitation are not provided soon.
Oxfam regional chief Sarah Ireland said "there are all the factors" for a public health catastrophe." She said the death toll from the May 3 cyclone is likely to be 100,000 and the number could multiply by 15 times in the coming period.
She told reporters Sunday: "We are afraid there is a real risk of a massive public catastrophe waiting to happen in Myanmar. It is a perfect storm if you will."
Packing enormously powerful winds, the storm battered the Irrawaddy delta, leaving hundreds of villages under water and felling trees and power lines. Myanmar's main city Yangon was also badly hit.
UN staff in Myanmar are reporting "significant progress in clearing roadways, and the piped water supply has been partially restored to some parts of Yangon city," the UN report said.
It said helicopter relays of international aid arriving in Yangon are being made to Pathein in Irrawaddy delta, for further distribution.
"Aid is getting through in increased amounts," said the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. It said three planes of the federation with 14 tons of shelter material arrived in Myanmar and were cleared without delay, replenishing Red Cross stocks already in the country before the cyclone.
So far, the humanitarian effort has supported 220,000 people, it said. A further seven flights are expected to arrive until Monday, carrying 20 tons of shelter material, jerry cans and 2,000 mosquito nets.
Australia Foreign Minister Stephen Smith announced Sunday that Canberra would give $23.5 million to help the survivors cope. The money would be given to UN agencies and other nongovernmental organisations to be spent on food, clean water and purification units, health and sanitation kits and tarpaulins.
"It is beyond the capacity of any one nation state to deal with," Smith said of the cyclone's devastation,
Myanmar's junta has also been criticised for holding a referendum on Saturday on a new constitution aimed at solidifying its hold on power, while brazenly turning cyclone relief efforts into a propaganda campaign in some cases, generals' names were scribbled onto boxes of foreign aid before being distributed.
The referendum seeks public approval of a new constitution, which the junta says will be followed in 2010 by a general election. Both votes are elements of what the junta calls its "roadmap to democracy."
But the proposed constitution guarantees 25 percent of parliamentary seats to the military and allows the president to hand over all power to the military in a state of emergency elements critics say defy the junta's professed commitment to democracy.
The referendum was postponed in the worst affected parts of Yangon and the Irrawaddy delta, but people in many peripheral areas that were also affected were asked to vote.
"For many of these people this referendum is bizarre, it is illogical. They are surviving by a very thin thread. Why do they have to worry about politics?" said Debbie Stothard, head of the Southeast Asian human rights group ALTSEAN-Burma. Myanmar is also known as Burma.
She told Associated Press Television News in Bangkok, Thailand, that the junta is manipulating aid and delivering it selectively, ignoring the needy.
"Even in Yangon area, which is reachable by the regime, people are complaining they are not getting aid. What they are getting is rotting rice," she said.
In the cyclone-hit areas, long lines formed in front of government centres, where rations of rice and oil were being distributed. Elsewhere, people clustered on roadsides hoping for handouts. The words "Help us!" were written in chalk on the side of one home.
"Please, don't wait too long," said Ma Thein Htwe, 49, who waited with dozens of other women and children at a monastery in Kungyangon for her ration of rice.