Asia-Pacific News

US to Begin Relief Airlift, Military Accused of Neglect

Associated Press

The U.S. was launching its first relief airlift Monday after prolonged negotiations with Myanmar's military rulers, accused of restricting international efforts to help up to 1.5 million cyclone survivors at risk of disease and starvation. 

In what was seen as a huge concession by the junta, the United States finally got the go-ahead to send a C-130 cargo plane packed with supplies to Yangon on Monday, with two more air shipments scheduled to land Tuesday. 

Myanmar soldiers carry sacks of rice, part of aid supplied by the Thai government, at an airport in Yangon, Myanmar Tuesday, May 6, 2008. Myanmar's Irrawaddy delta, where nearly 22,000 people perished, remained largely cut off from the rest of the world Tuesday, four days after a cyclone unleashed winds, floods and high tidal waves on the densely populated region. (AP Photo)

The death toll from the killer storm jumped to nearly 29,000 Sunday amid warnings that the military rulers, who have ruled the isolated nation with an iron fist for nearly four decades, were creating a "humanitarian catastrophe of genuinely epic proportions." 

The junta has been sharply criticized for its handling of the May 3 disaster, from failing to provide adequate warnings about the pending storm to responding slowly to offers of help. 

Though international assistance has started trickling in, the few foreign relief workers who have been allowed entry into Myanmar have been restricted to the largest city of Yangon. Only a handful have succeeded in getting past checkpoints into the worst-affected areas. 

Myanmar's military rulers are especially suspicious of Washington, which has long been one of the junta's biggest critics, pointing to human rights abuses and its failure to hand over power to a democratically elected government. 

"We hope that this is the beginning of a long line of assistance from the United States," White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe told reporters in Crawford, Texas over the weekend. "They're going to need our help for a long time." 

Highlighting the many challenges ahead, however, a Red Cross boat carrying rice, drinking water and other goods for more than 1,000 people sank Sunday near hard-hit Bogalay town. All four aid workers on board were safe. 

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies could not say how much of the cargo has been lost, but it said the food supplies were contaminated by river water. 

"Apart from the delay in getting aid to people we may now have to re-evaluate how we transport that aid," said Michael Annear, the IFRC's disaster manager in Yangon, who described the sinking as "a big blow." 

Other aid was increasingly getting through, the group said, but on "nowhere near the scale required." 

Heavy showers were forecast for the coming week, further complicating delivery of aid that is still barely reaching victims in the Irrawaddy delta, which was pounded by 120 mph winds and 12-foot-high storm surges from the sea. 

The U.N. said about 2 million people were severely affected by the story. British aid group Oxfam said Sunday that the death toll could rise to 1.5 million if people do not get clean water and sanitation soon. 

In hard hit Laputta, hundreds of survivors crowded the floor of a monastery's open-air hall, the sound of hungry children wailing. Many people tried to sleep sitting up because of lack of space. 

Pain Na Kon, a tiny nearby village of just 300, was completely obliterated.

The only 12 known survivors - including 6-year-old Mien Mien, who lost both her parents - huddled together in a tent set up in a rice field, sharing a small portion of biscuits and watery soup handed out at a local monastery. 

"We are family now," said U Nyo, a man in his 30s, his eyes red and watery. "We are from the same place. We are together." 

Even Yangon, further inland, was crowded with refugees and its own homeless from the storm.

"People are sleeping in the open or in one of thousands of flimsy shelters dotted around the city," the Red Cross quoted one of its workers saying. "I saw one group perched on a piece of land straddling a field of fetid water among goats, pigs, buffalos and dogs." 

Myanmar's state television said Sunday the death toll from Cyclone Nargis had gone up by about 5,000 to 28,458 - with another 33,416 missing - though some experts said it could be 15 times that if people do not get clean water and sanitation soon. 

"A natural disaster is turning into a humanitarian catastrophe of genuinely epic proportions in significant part because of the malign neglect of the regime," said British Foreign Secretary David Miliband.  "I would be amazed if there hadn't been about 100,000 who had died already
... what's more, hundreds of thousands more are at risk," he told British Broadcasting Corp. television. 

Singapore May Host ASEAN Meeting On Myanmar Aid

Meanwhile, foreign ministers of Southeast Asian countries could meet in Singapore soon to discuss measures to boost relief and recovery efforts in cyclone-hit Myanmar, the Straits Times reported.

Myanmar has agreed to Singapore's offer to host the meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in the city-state and its foreign minister is expected to attend, the Singapore-based newspaper said in a report without identifying its source.

The reported meeting comes after Singapore's Foreign Minister George Yeo wrote to his Myanmar counterpart Nyan Win last Friday, a Foreign Ministry statement said.