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Myanmar aid trickles in; EU warns of starvation PDF Print E-mail
Thursday, 15 May 2008

REUTERS, YANGON- The 1.5 million people left destitute by Myanmar's cyclone are in increasing danger of disease and starvation, experts said on Wednesday, but its ruling junta said no to a Thai request to admit more aid workers.

Thai Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej met his Myanmar counterpart Thein Sein in Yangon for 2 ½ hours trying to convince him the former Burma should open up for international relief operations and ease visa rules for aid workers.

Early May's Cyclone Nargis swept through Myanmar's heavily populated Irrawaddy delta rice bowl, leaving up to 100,000 people dead or missing, and many of the survivors homeless and hungry.

International aid has amounted to little more than a trickle as Myanmar's generals resist efforts to open the floodgates to foreign workers and their operations and equipment.

Myanmar's prime minister "insisted that his country with 60 million people has a government, its people and the private sector to tackle the problem by themselves," Samak told reporters after returning to Bangkok.

"They are confident of dealing with the problem by themselves. There are no outbreaks of diseases, no starvation, no famine. They don't need experts, but are willing to get aid supplies from every country," Samak said.

Louis Michel, the European Union's top aid official, had a different view.

"There is a risk of water pollution. There is a risk of starvation because the storages of rice have been destroyed," he told reporters in Bangkok before flying to Yangon to seek better access for international aid workers and relief efforts.

"We want to convince the authorities of our good faith. We are there for humanitarian reasons," he said, throwing cold water on suggestions foreign countries move unilaterally on aid.

"I think it will not be the best solution," compared to trying to reach a long-term agreement with the government.

Reports a tropical depression was swirling southwest of Yangon which could develop into a major storm sparked concerns on Wednesday a new tragedy could be in the making.

But the United Nations weather agency discounted the fears, saying while rain and winds were expected in Myanmar, there was no sign of a new tropical cyclone forming in the Bay of Bengal region.

"With the monsoon season approaching, this type of weather will continue and periods of intensive rainfall will become more frequent," the World Meteorological Organisation said in a statement released in Geneva.

"There is no indication of a tropical cyclone forming in the region."


GESTURE TO CRITICS

In a gesture to critics, Myanmar's reclusive military rulers have invited 160 personnel from neighbouring Bangladesh, China, India and Thailand to assist in delayed and sometimes chaotic relief efforts.

But that is a fraction of the thousands of foreign aid workers needed for a "tsunami-style" international aid operation.

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

Some foreign aid workers who have reached Myanmar have been restricted to cobbling together assessment reports in Yangon for donors, based on what local staff tell them.

One group of Christian doctors has been treating children in churches, under the government's radar.

"People all over the world want to help Myanmar but the government is blocking medical teams.

"But we have to try to do something," said one Asian doctor from the group, giving out medicine to children for diarrhoea in a rickety wooden church in a village just north of Yangon.

Experts say the relief effort is only delivering a tenth of the needed supplies. Getting it to the low-lying delta area has been complicated by poor equipment, bad weather and government intransigence.

Heavy rains have slowed transportation of aid by land and added to the misery of tens of thousands of refugees packed into monasteries, schools and pagodas.

Lacking food, water and sanitation, survivors face the threat of killer diseases such as cholera.

"We have been told by Burmese doctors they have lots of patients with severely infected wounds and they are being hit by outbreaks of communicable diseases like diarrhoea," senior Thai health official Doctor Surachet Satitniramai said.

He told Reuters Thailand will send a medical team of 30 with 10 tonnes of supplies and equipment to work for two weeks.

Despite those and other efforts, operations in Myanmar are a shadow of the massive international relief operation kickstarted just days after the 2004 Asian tsunami.

The United States alone deployed thousands of its military and more than a dozen ships in the Indian Ocean.

So far the U.S. military has made a total of eight aid flights into Yangon, an official said.

"We don't have confirmation of future flights yet but we are very optimistic," said Colonel Douglas Powell.

Three U.S. naval ships were in international waters off Myanmar waiting for a go-ahead from Myanmar's generals.

"We just hope that the Burmese government will ask us to do more because we have so much more capability.

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