Monday, June 2, 2008

UN warns of 'urgent work' to help Myanmar cyclone victims

By Hla Hla Htay

Mon Jun 2, 3:42 AM ET

YANGON (AFP) - A month after Myanmar's cyclone left 133,000 people dead or missing, the UN's food agency chief warned Monday that "urgent work" is needed to help hundreds of thousands of survivors stave off hunger.

The United Nations estimates that around 2.4 million people are in need of food, shelter, clean water or other humanitarian aid, with 60 percent yet to receive any help at all.

Myanmar's isolationist military regime -- deeply suspicious of the outside world -- has limited international help and restricted access for humanitarian workers to the hardest-hit parts of the Irrawaddy Delta, where whole villages were washed away in the storm.

Josette Sheeran, the World Food Programme chief who visited Myanmar at the weekend, said progress had been made in receiving visas for international aid workers, whose expertise is needed to oversee the complex relief operation.

But she said aid workers still faced bureaucratic hurdles in travelling to the delta, which suffered the brunt of Cyclone Nargis on May 2-3.

"What we need is a seamless global lifeline of relief supplies," Sheeran said Monday, after her visit.

"Progress has been made, but urgent work remains on the critical last leg."

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon wrapped up a visit here more than a week ago, saying that he had convinced junta leader Than Shwe to allow a full-scale foreign relief effort.

But aid agencies say access to the delta remains spotty, although more visas have been granted.

Myanmar flatly refused to accept help from US, British and French naval ships, which were laden with thousands of tonnes of supplies and helicopters to deliver them.

US Defence Secretary Robert Gates has accused the regime of "criminal neglect" for refusing their help, saying Myanmar's initial delays could have cost tens of thousands of lives.

"Unless the regime changes its approach, its policy, more people will die," he said after a weekend regional security forum in Singapore.

Malaysia's deputy prime minister Najib Razak urged the regime to allow military helicopters from neighbouring countries to deliver supplies, insisting such help would be purely humanitarian.

"We have proven time and time again that our involvement is strictly humanitarian in nature and there is no other agenda," he told the security forum.

Southeast Asian countries and the United Nations have formed a new coordinating body with junta officials in Yangon in a bid to clear obstacles to the relief effort.

Sheeran said she met with the head of the panel, Myanmar's deputy foreign minister Kyaw Thu, to urge him to do more to speed the relief effort.

So far, the WFP has dispatched enough food to give a first ration of rice to 575,000 people, but many people have not been reached and others are now due for a second ration, the agency said.

WFP says it is trying to reach a total of 663,000 people in the worst-hit parts of the delta.

In the former capital of Yangon , also pounded by the storm, the agency is providing 200,000 people with 50 cents a day so they can buy their own food in local markets, the statement said.

"WFP is committed to being resourceful and finding better ways to reach a large number of people who are struggling to put their lives back together," Sheeran said.

The project in Yangon "allows us to focus our food delivery efforts on the delta, where most food stocks have been destroyed and markets are not functioning properly," she added.

Some ordinary residents in Yangon are trying to deliver supplies on their own to hard-hit regions of the delta, and victims have lined the roadsides to beg for food.

"Stop, just a minute," said an old man named Maung, sitting on the outskirts of the city in tattered clothes and reaching to passing cars with his empty, gesturing as if to eat.

He sat with a young boy carrying a small bag with all that remains of their possessions, staring blankly into space.

"No one here, not even the junta seems to stop to help," he said.

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