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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2955

Myanmar Junta Does U-Turn on Relief Aid

By Thalif Deen, Inter Press Service

United Nations, 11 May, (IPS): The military government of Burma (Myanmar), in a dramatic turnaround, has offered to cooperate with the United Nations in its massive relief efforts in the cyclone-devastated country where the death toll could exceed 100,000.

"Our frustration levels have been going up and down," U.N. Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs John Holmes told reporters Friday.

"We were badly frustrated yesterday, we are a little less frustrated this afternoon, and we hope it will be better tomorrow," he added. "But we cannot afford to give up."

The military junta, which governs a virtually hermetically-sealed country, not only impounded U.N. food aid shipments Thursday but also refused to facilitate access to humanitarian aid workers and relief supplies.

The supplies were meant to meet the urgent needs of over 1.5 million people facing threats of starvation and disease following the destruction caused by Cyclone Nargis last week.

Holmes said there was a "mixed picture" emerging from Burma. The "slowness" of the response from the government could be both procedural and political, he said.

In emergency situations, like the one in Burma, it was not unprecedented for a slow start during the first few days. "But the rhythm of aid delivery is picking up, but not as fast as we could like it to be," he added.

Asked about reports that the government plans to take over the distribution of food, he said: "We have no rule that governments should not distribute food aid."

The United Nations, he said, was more concerned about the "degree of control" in the distribution process. "We need to negotiate," Holmes stressed.

At a meeting to launch a 'Flash Appeal' for funds, the permanent representative of Myanmar to the United Nations Ambassador Kyaw Tint Swe said his government was "thankful to the international community, our friends near and far for the solidarity and generosity."

To date, he said, two shiploads and 11 aircraft with relief supplies have reached Burma. "We urgently need medical supplies, food, clothing, electricity generators, and material for emergency shelter, as well as financial assistance," he noted, indicating his government's willingness to cooperate with the international community.

On Friday, the United Nations proposed a common humanitarian Flash Appeal of 187 million dollars to help international partners, including 10 U.N. agencies and nine non-governmental organizations (NGOs), support the Burmese government in addressing the needs of over 1.5 million people for at least three months.

"I hope today's appeal will be met with concrete expressions of solidarity and generosity by the international community," the Burmese envoy pleaded before member states.

Holmes said the Burmese ambassador's statement was "a turning point in international cooperation" between the military government and the United Nations. He also said that member states responded with pledges totaling more than 77 million dollars, with the two largest pledges from Japan and Britain, with 10 million dollars each.

But the biggest single contribution was 20 million dollars from the U.N.'s own Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF).

According to figures released by the government, there were 22,997 fatalities, 1,403 wounded, and 42,119 unaccounted for. But other estimates are far higher, and as many as 100,000 people may have lost their lives.

In a detailed assessment of the situation in Burma, Holmes told delegates that Nargis is the worst cyclone to hit Asia since 1991, when 138,000 people died in Bangladesh.

Based on assessments of 18 agencies and their surveys in 55 townships, the United Nations estimates the number of the severely affected people is between 1.2 and 1.9 million.

The number of deaths has been climbing daily and could be anywhere between 63,000 and 100,000, and possibly far higher than the more conservative figures released by the government.

Holmes said the Burmese government has pledged about 5.0 million dollars for relief provision. The local Red Cross has been distributing emergency relief supplies to survivors in Yangon and Ayeyarwady Divisions through its network of volunteers, and the military has made helicopters available to relay aid.

The U.N. official also said the sheer magnitude of the devastation is such that international assistance is indispensable for ensuring a rapid and coherent response.

Holmes concluded by saying that "the extent of the humanitarian catastrophe is enormous and that the numbers of people in need may well increase further as we come to understand better the situation on the ground".

"And I repeat, that the sooner humanitarians are allowed in, and the less procedural and other obstacles we encounter, the more lives we can help save," he said. "The speed with which we deliver assistance to those in needs is becoming more and more critical and the danger of the outbreak of epidemics rises by the hour."

"If we do not act now, and if we do not act fast, more lives will be lost. We are working hard to step up our own response. But we also count on strong support from the international community to alleviate the suffering of millions of people whose lives have been shattered," Holmes said.

-Inter Press Service (IPS) News Agency -

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