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U.N. Aid Aircraft Reach Burma, Where Storm Toll Steadily Rises

By Amy Kazmin and Colum Lynch
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, May 9, 2008

BANGKOK, May 8 -- Two U.N. transport planes loaded with cyclone relief supplies landed in Burma on Thursday, as international leaders heightened pressure on the country's secretive military government to fully embrace foreign help. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon tried unsuccessfully to telephone Burma's top general to press the case personally.

U.S. military transports were standing by in Thailand to fly in more supplies. But no clearance arrived from Burma, where U.N. experts now estimate that 1.5 million people are in desperate need of help after last weekend's cyclone. Most of the survivors are still largely on their own.

"Burma has got to open itself up to a major international effort very soon if we are not to face a second disaster, where infectious disease and other problems start to take a significant toll," said Richard Horsey, a spokesman for the U.N. Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

Despite hunger, food rioting, diarrhea outbreaks and general desperation, Burma's military authorities continue to resist the kind of massive international relief that followed the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and the Pakistan earthquake of 2005. The leaders are highly suspicious of the U.S. and other Western governments, which have condemned them as dictators.

Eric John, the American ambassador to Thailand, expressed chagrin at the continuing stalemate, saying sluggish bureaucracy could be partly to blame. "It is very frustrating, if you look at the people's suffering," he said. "You have the tools at your fingertips to alleviate that suffering, and they are just not picking them up."

John said the United States thought it had received a green light Thursday morning to send in C-130 military transport aircraft carrying relief supplies. But Burmese authorities later made it clear no permission had been granted.

In New York, U.N. officials said that Ban had tried to call Senior Gen. Than Shwe, the head of Burma's military and government, but that repeated attempts Thursday failed. Ban also urged postponement of a constitutional referendum across the country so as to focus all resources on the disaster. This week, the government said it will delay the vote scheduled for Saturday by two weeks in the cyclone zone but proceed with it as scheduled in other parts of the country.

John Holmes, the chief U.N. emergency relief coordinator, said that only two World Food Program officials had been issued visas to enter the country, leaving more than 40 U.N. relief workers stranded in Bangkok, the capital of neighboring Thailand. Holmes said two Asian disaster response officials were allowed into the country but that two others whose entry had been cleared Wednesday were turned back at the last minute.

At the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said the U.S. military is poised to "save a lot of lives" in Burma and that the tragedy is being compounded by the junta's failure to allow American forces to provide assistance.

U.S. Navy ships were unloading helicopters in Thailand that could reach Burma with relief supplies in a matter of hours, and six C-130 transport planes were available to provide emergency aid, Gates said. Three or four ships began a five-day journey to a location off Burma to be available to offer aid.

Gates said the U.S. military could not act without Burmese government permission, but a State Department official said that "anything that might have a positive impact is being looked at and is being discussed," including unauthorized airdrops. The official, Ky Luu, director of the U.S. Agency for International Development's Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance, said that because of such logistical challenges as notifying people on the ground, the drops could cause more harm than good. He said the immediate need is for the Burmese government to open up aid channels.

Despite the barriers, the United Nations got two planes into the country Thursday, both chartered by the World Food Program. One -- loaded with 20 tons of ready-to-eat, high-energy biscuits, six portable warehouses and eight large emergency medical kits -- had sat for two days in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, waiting for clearance.

In Rangoon, officials repeatedly told the WFP that the airlift had a green light. But that word did not reach Burma's civil aviation authorities, who delayed giving the pilot clearance to land. A second WFP plane landed Thursday, and two more were due by Friday.

On the ground, the U.N. food agency, which has long operated non-emergency programs in Burma, set up its first distribution center with more than four tons of biscuits in the town of Labutta, in one of the worst-hit areas in the Irrawaddy Delta. It planned to begin distributing food there Friday.

The supplies going in so far are "such a trickle of aid, compared to what is needed, and we can't even get this in," said Paul Risley, a WFP spokesman. "This is why a death toll can rise in the critical 10 days after the disaster."

"I've never seen an emergency situation such as this before," said Greg Beck, Asia regional director of the International Rescue Committee. "A week after the disaster, the entire humanitarian community is still sitting in another country, outside the affected area, looking for means to access the disaster zone."

But military rulers of the country officially known as Myanmar did quickly accept some bilateral aid, given by friendly Asian governments directly to the Burmese military, without strings attached, for distribution by the army.

The junta has long been wary of foreign aid workers, particularly Westerners, whom they suspect of supporting dissidents opposed to military rule. While international nongovernmental organizations have been permitted to operate in Burma for the past decade, some members of the government have sought to subject their workers to ever-tighter controls.

Now authorities seem to be trying to handpick relief workers, letting in some U.N. officials and aid workers from Asian countries, while stalling on others. "They seem to be open to us bringing in staff from nations which are part of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations" but are less open to people from other countries, said Greg Duly, regional director of Save the Children, which was operating in Burma before the disaster and is distributing relief.

Despite the obstacles, Duly said, Burmese officials on the ground seem increasingly receptive to help. "It isn't black and white -- this is a very opaque, constant-changing situation," he said. "We are getting more cooperation now in-country than we were getting three days ago."

That shift may reflect growing pressure on Burma from China and Southeast Asian countries, its closest friends. And, he said, "it might be that they are appreciating better the full scale of the disaster."

Lynch reported from the United Nations. Staff writer Ann Scott Tyson in Washington contributed to this report.

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