Monday, May 19, 2008

UN chief finally steps in

The arrival of United Nations chief Ban Ki-Moon and other top UN officials in cyclone-shattered Burma on Wednesday may provide pressure on the military junta to hasten disaster relief efforts for its people, officials said on Monday.

More than two weeks after Cyclone Nargis devastated parts of Burma on May 2-3, the country has remained in the world spotlight because of the military junta's refusal to facilitate an international relief operation.

The cyclone left 133,650 people dead or missing, according to the latest government estimates, making it the worst natural disaster in Southeast Asia since the December 26, 2004, tsunami.

Unlike the swift international aid response to the tsunami, the Burmese disaster relief programme is in danger of becoming a disaster itself.

That is primarily because of the Burmese regime, which requested international assistance but has baulked at opening its reclusive country to the full-scale aid operation required to meet the needs of about 2.4 million people affected by the storm.

UN humanitarian affairs chief John Holmes arrived in Burma on Sunday and on Monday received a brief tour of the Irrawaddy Delta, the region hardest-hit by Cyclone Nargis.

Holmes hoped to be "granted an audience" with Burmese authorities, who could not help him Monday because as good Buddhists they had to mark the Visakha Bucha holiday commemorating the birth, death and enlightenment of the Lord Buddha.

Amanda Pitt, a spokeswoman for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs covered up for the junta by excusing their inattention to disaster relief on their religion.

It was not even clear whether Ban would be allowed to meet the Burmese leaders if the UN chief does visit the country this week.

"We don't know who he will be meeting if he does indeed arrive in (Burma) this week," Pitt said at a press conference in Bangkok.

Members of the international aid community said they hoped Holmes and Ban would be able to pressure the generals to ramp up the relief programme.

"Of course what we want to happen is that they will be able to meet with people at the highest level of the government because clearly what we are trying to do is work towards a scaled-up response," Pitt said.

Burma has been under military dictatorships for the past 46 years with its ruling generals showing a callousness toward the well-being of their people. Junta chief, Snr Gen Than Shwe, for instance, paid his first visit to cyclone victims over the weekend, two weeks after the storm struck.

The junta, which spends millions of dollars on military equipment, has allocated 5 billion kyat ($4.3 million) to the relief effort for cyclone-affected regions.

While it has welcomed international aid, the regime has been harshly criticised for refusing to grant visas to international aid workers and experts. Burmese officials have only worked overtime while engaged in slowing the emergency operation.

The relief effort has started to gain some momentum, but an estimated 500,000 people are still in desperate need of food.

From May 3 to last weekend, the World Food Programme (WFP) flew 14 planeloads of aid to Rangoon airport, and the Red Cross managed 24. Some of the aid even has left the airport, although its destination is not actually known.

"The WFP continues to make progress, but it is slow and insufficient," agency spokesman Marcus Prior acknowledged at the Bangkok media conference.

The UN agency estimated it needs to fly in about 375 tons of food a day to Burma to meet the requirements of 750,000 hungry people.

The military junta was the main cause for the slow delivery during the first two weeks of the UN emergency operation, sources said.

"It was a question of landing rights and getting approvals," Red Cross spokesman John Sparrow said.

Like many international aid agencies, the Red Cross has been giving a positive spin to the aid effort to try to keep the government from turning off the aid spigot.

"There is a momentum and rhythm now to the pipeline going into the country," Sparrow said at a press conference. (


Earlier report:

United Nations - UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon plans to travel this week to cyclone-ravaged Burma to push for speedier relief efforts for the May 2 storm.

He plans to arrive on Wednesday for a three-day visit and hopes to meet with officials of the Burmese military regime, UN spokeswoman Michele Montas said Sunday at UN headquarters in New York.

The Burmese government has been sharply criticised around the world for obstructing international relief efforts.

Independent relief groups put the death toll from Cyclone Nargis at more than 100,000, with 2 million survivors at risk from starvation and disease if adequate food, medicine and other essential supplies do not arrive soon. (dpa)

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