Asia-Pacific News

Myanmar's Cyclone Survivors Beg for Help


Desperation among Myanmar's 1.5 million cyclone survivors mounted on Wednesday as the international aid flow remained a trickle and police barred foreign aid workers from worst-hit areas.

The United Nations and Western powers piled more pressure on the military regime to speed up its slow and disorganized response to the disaster by suggesting that helpless victims could have been robbed of food and other urgent supplies.

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 reports were unconfirmed, but the relief effort -- further complicated by heavy rains -- is only delivering one tenth of the supplies needed in the devastated delta region, where up to 100,000 people are dead or missing. 

"It's just awful, people are in just desperate need, begging as vehicles go past," Gordon Bacon, an emergency coordinator for International Rescue Committee, told Reuters by phone from Yangon.

The international community has flown in tons of medicine, food and shelter materials, but getting it to low-lying delta area has been complicated by poor equipment, bad weather and government intransigence.

Myanmar's reclusive junta has also made it very clear it does not want outsiders distributing aid.

Foreign experts in sanitation, nutrition and medicine have either been prevented from entering the country formerly known as Burma or are restricted to the main city of Yangon.

Armed police send back foreigners who attempt to pass through checkpoints surrounding the former capital.

"It's such an immense area of devastation and so many people need help that I'm sure if these people could get in and be coordinated properly it would assist the effort dramatically," said Bacon. "There is frustration all around."

The international community has warned of an even greater tragedy if the aid effort is not ratcheted up.

In a statement after emergency talks on Myanmar in Brussels on Tuesday, EU development ministers called on Yangon "to offer free and unfettered access to international humanitarian experts, including the expeditious delivery of visa and travel permits."

The EU ministers stopped short of endorsing a French call to deliver supplies if necessary without the junta's permission.

France's junior minister for human rights said it had the backing of Britain and Germany to call on the U.N. Security Council for aid to be taken into Myanmar without the government's green light if necessary.

"We have called for the 'responsibility to protect' to be applied in the case of Burma," Rama Yade told reporters.

British officials said London would welcome discussion of the 'responsibility to protect,' a 2005 U.N. resolution conceived to assist victims of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity, but not natural disasters.

But the official did not consider the proposal realistic given Russian and Chinese objections.

Tens of thousands of people throughout the delta are crammed into monasteries, schools and other buildings after arriving in towns that were on the breadline even before the disaster.

Lacking food, water and sanitation, they face the threat of killer diseases such as cholera and in some parts are waiting in vain for help to arrive.