Burma Clears U.S. Aircraft To Deliver Storm Relief

Tropical Cyclone Nargis hit the nation's largest city and rice-producing delta on May 3, 2008. More storms headed toward the country as the U.N. warned that inadequate relief efforts could lead to rising death tolls.
By Amy Kazmin and Colum Lynch
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, May 10, 2008

BANGKOK, May 10 -- Burma's military government said Friday it had cleared a U.S. military relief flight for cyclone victims, declaring itself ready to accept aid from "all quarters." But the junta reaffirmed that it alone will handle distribution, without foreign workers, a restriction that international agencies reject.

The mixed message left deep uncertainties in the delivery of vital food and medications a week after Tropical Cyclone Nargis swept through Burma's low-lying Irrawaddy Delta, swamping villages and leaving at least 60,000 Burmese dead or missing.

As hundreds of thousands of people stranded by the tidal surge desperately await aid, the Bush administration pressured China and other allies of Burma's military government, hoping they would prevail on it to open its doors to help.

"The situation is getting critical and there is only a small window of opportunity if we are to avert the spread of diseases that could multiply the already tragic number of casualties," Noeleen Heyzer, the top U.N. official in Asia, said.

Despite the storm's damage, Burma's government went ahead Saturday with voting in many parts of the country on a controversial new national constitution. Its lone concession was a two-week postponement of the vote in Burma's hardest-hit areas: the delta and Rangoon, its largest city.

Continuing with the vote was the latest sign that diplomatic overtures were having little influence over the junta, which brutally put down a popular uprising last year. The generals who rule Burma view foreign assistance -- even in the storm's dire aftermath -- as a potential threat to their two-decade hold on power.

On Friday, authorities at the Rangoon airport impounded food and equipment delivered by two U.N. planes the previous day. In response, officials from the organization's World Food Program announced a suspension of flights. The Burmese also turned away a search-and-rescue team from the Persian Gulf state of Qatar that arrived without clearance to enter the country.

Later Friday, World Food Program headquarters overturned the initial ruling and said that two more aid planes would land in Burma on Saturday but that discussions on who will distribute the supplies would continue.

"The U.N. system does not fly in goods, hand them to the government and then fly away," said Richard Horsey of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. "We have certain requirements on accountability. Beneficiaries have to be identified on the basis of need, and delivery has to be monitored."

The United Nations has pressed for a week to get about 40 visas for U.N. logistics and disaster relief coordinators and technicians to help scale up a massive operation.

But the government of Burma, which the military rulers renamed Myanmar in 1989, showed no sign of buckling on that issue. "Currently Myanmar has prioritised receiving emergency relief provisions and making strenuous effort of delivering it with its own labour to the affected areas," the state-run New Light of Myanmar newspaper said. "Myanmar is not in a position to receive rescue and information teams from foreign countries at the moment."

Despite the uncertainties, the chief U.N. relief official, John Holmes, appealed to member nations at a meeting in New York on Friday to provide more than $187 million to fund U.N. relief operations likely to last many months.

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