By Amy Kazmin and Colum Lynch
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, May 13, 2008
BANGKOK, May 12 -- The head of the U.S. Pacific Command flew into Burma on Monday aboard the first U.S. military aid flight, to press for a full-scale international relief operation for victims of Cyclone Nargis. Facing mounting international pressure to open their country's borders, Burmese officials promised to consider the request.
In New York, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon expressed "immense frustration" with the pace of the relief effort, slowed by Burma's secretive military government. After trying for days to get top general Than Shwe on the telephone, Ban said, he sent a letter urging him to facilitate a massive aid operation.
Adm. Timothy J. Keating flew in a U.S. Air Force C-130 from an air base in Thailand that is turning into a staging area for Burma relief. Accompanying him was Henrietta H. Fore, head of the U.S. Agency for International Development. At the airport in Rangoon, Burma's largest city, they conferred with Burma's top naval officer in the highest-level military contact between the two countries in decades.
Keating and Fore did not go beyond the airport before flying back to Thailand. Fore said she believed that "our discussions were a good first step" toward broader U.S. help.
Hours later, a second U.S. flight left Thailand with relief supplies. Lt. Col. Douglas Powell said the Marine C-130 cargo plane left for Yangon Tuesday carrying 19,900 pounds of water, blankets and mosquito nets. He said a third flight carrying more supplies would leave later in the day.
The United States has offered to deploy as many as 4,000 Marines, six C-130 planes and a large number of heavy-lift helicopters in what would be its largest disaster relief effort since the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004. It will also have three naval ships, with helicopters on board, positioned off Burma's southwest coast within 48 hours.
"We have a broad array of personnel and equipment, and we are ready to respond as soon as the Burmese give us permission," Keating said.
The cargo plane on which Keating and Fore traveled delivered bottled water, blankets and mosquito nets. U.S. and Burmese military personnel jointly unloaded the supplies, which the Burmese promised to send quickly to the disaster zone by helicopter.
In another sign of gradual cooperation, U.N. officials said that the Burmese had now approved visas for 34 aid workers.
The U.S. government, meanwhile, moved Monday to allow individuals to send unlimited amounts of money to people in Burma.
The generals who rule the country, which they officially renamed Myanmar, are highly wary of Western governments, especially the United States. President Bush has called Burma "an outpost of tyranny"; the generals accuse Washington of trying to overthrow them by supporting Burmese dissidents, both in and outside the country.
Military authorities are sealing off the disaster zone to foreigners, turning them back at checkpoints on the roads. Transport remains in short supply; the Burmese military is using only seven helicopters to ferry supplies from the airport into the affected areas.
In New York, Ban warned of an "outbreak of infectious diseases that could dwarf today's crisis."
"Handled properly, Myanmar can recover from this calamity," he told reporters at U.N. headquarters. "Handled poorly, it will become an even deeper crisis that will set back the country's people and its government for years."
U.N. relief agencies have reached fewer than a third of the people in need, he said. Rice stocks are nearly exhausted, and the U.N. World Food Program is distributing only about 10 percent of the food that is needed.
The United Nations' chief relief coordinator, John Holmes, said Monday that heavy rains are forecast for Burma's delta region, which would place added strain on survivors and relief workers. Bodies have been washed out to sea, making it likely that "we may never have a very exact figure" for the dead, he said.
Health workers have so far detected only isolated cases of diarrhea and malaria, Holmes said. But large numbers of survivors are beginning to concentrate in a small number of towns, which could increase the spread of disease.
The government raised its officially confirmed death toll to 31,938 on Monday. But Sam Worthington, president of InterAction, a coalition of 165 U.S.-based nongovernmental organizations that work abroad, said in an interview in Washington that reports from people on the ground as well as U.N. helicopter assessments increasingly indicate that the number of dead could be as high as 200,000.
He said 218 makeshift camps serving 196,000 displaced people have opened across the Irrawaddy Delta area, the focus of the storm. So far, they contain only a small percentage of the estimated 1.5 million displaced people.
The camps have been set up by Burmese working for various aid organizations that were already operating in Burma, such as World Vision, Save the Children and Pact. But Worthington said the camps are woefully short of infrastructure; one camp has five latrines for 3,500 people, he said.
Lynch reported from the United Nations. Staff writer Glenn Kessler in Washington contributed to this report.