Friday, June 13, 2008

Burma junta: U.S. cyclone disaster aid can't be trusted

RANGOON, Burma (AP) — As individuals and aid agencies around the world dig into their pockets for funds to help Burma's cyclone victims, the country's ruling junta Friday said that such assistance from the United States could not be trusted.

In a clear reference to the United States, a media mouthpiece for the regime warned that "the goodwill of a big Western nation that wants to help Burma with its warships was not genuine."

Burma, also known as Myanmar, turned down humanitarian aid aboard naval vessels from the United States, as well as Great Britain and France, which had sailed toward the Southeast Asian nation after Cyclone Nargis struck May 2-3.

State media has previously said that Burma feared Washington was using the cover of humanitarian aid to invade the country and steal its oil reserves.

The New Light of Burma newspaper said Friday that aid from nations who impose economic sanctions against Burma and push the U.N. Security Council to take actions against it "comes with strings attached."

Despite such regular attacks by the junta against Western donor countries, celebrities, ordinary people and aid groups there have donated generously to help the cyclone victims.

Queen Elizabeth II, Bill Gates, J.K. Rowling and a clutch of Hollywood stars have been among the givers.

However, the United Nations said Thursday that it has received about half the money it requested for cyclone relief, with some nations apparently delaying their donations because of concerns about restrictions imposed by the military government on foreign aid workers.

The U.N. set a goal of $201.6 million for its relief efforts but so far has received only $88.5 million, or 44%, from government donors, it said. Some $51 million in pledges has not yet been delivered, the U.N. said.

Funding shortfalls were particularly great for emergency food operations and education, said the world body.

"Funding is clearly not coming in at the rate we would hope," said Amanda Pitt, a spokeswoman in Bangkok, Thailand, for the U.N. relief operations. "Funding is urgently needed to sustain the pipeline for food and assistance."

Other agencies are faring better. The private, Christian-oriented group World Vision, a major international relief agency, says it is looking for about $25 million or $26 million to enable operations for six months and has $19 million so far.

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies says it has raised 96% of the $50.8 million it is seeking.

Private agencies — which play a large part in relief operations — raise much of their funds from individuals, both rich and not-so-rich.

Aid donors met late last month in Yangon and agreed to provide some cyclone aid, but many of them warned the ruling junta they would not fully open their wallets until international aid workers are provided access to the hardest-hit areas. The generals promised to allow foreign workers into the Irrawaddy delta, but have continued to hinder access to the area.

Humanitarian and rights groups said the government distributed a new set of guidelines for relief operations at a meeting of U.S. agencies and private aid groups Tuesday that could further complicate and delay recovery efforts.

The guidelines require repeated contact with national and local government agencies and large amounts of paperwork.

"The government should be streamlining aid efforts to cyclone victims, not slowing down aid with these new rules," Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement Friday.

Britain's Disasters Emergency Committee — a consortium of 13 humanitarian aid agencies — says Queen Elizabeth II and Harry Potter series author J.K. Rowling both contributed "significant donations" to Burma relief.

Software billionaire Bill Gates has donated $3 million and offered software to help reunite family members separated in the cyclone.

In Hollywood, the nonprofit organization Not On Our Watch — founded by actors George Clooney, Matt Damon, Brad Pitt and others — awarded $250,000 to Save the Children and offered to match every additional dollar given to the aid group up to 250,000.

The U.N. estimates more than 1 million survivors, mostly in the delta, still need help more than five weeks after the cyclone struck. Cyclone Nargis killed more than 78,000 people in impoverished Burma and left another 56,000 people missing, according to the government.

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