Burma to Allow 160 Asian Aid Workers

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
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, May 15, 2008

BANGKOK, May 14 -- Burmese military authorities have agreed to let 160 aid workers from four Asian countries assist its struggling cyclone relief effort, aid officials said Wednesday, the government's first acknowledgment that it needs foreign expertise.

Thailand's Ministry of Public Health confirmed that it is sending 30 doctors, along with medical supplies, on Wednesday to work in Burma for two weeks. U.N. officials said India, China and Bangladesh have also been asked to send experienced disaster relief teams.

The news came as five more U.S. military C-130 transport planes, carrying such desperately needed supplies as water, mosquito nets, plastic sheets, blankets and hygiene kits, flew into Burma's largest city, Rangoon, in an acceleration of U.S. assistance following Tropical Cyclone Nargis.

The United Nations noted other "progress" as it tried to get aid to the worst-hit areas in the Irrawaddy Delta. Long-awaited visas for some U.N. disaster relief and logistics experts have come through.

"We are seeing more flights into the country, more supplies getting into the delta," said Amanda Pitt, a spokeswoman for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. "But the levels of aid getting in are not adequate. . . . They are not at a level and speed commensurate with what is needed."

Burma's military junta is highly wary of foreigners, especially Westerners. It is under intense pressure to open the doors to a full-scale international relief operation. The United Nations has said that as many as 2.5 million people have been severely affected by Nargis.

In a briefing Wednesday in Washington, the administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, Henrietta Fore, acknowledged that U.S. officials have no idea whether the limited aid that the United States has been able to fly into Burma has actually been delivered to victims of the cyclone or whether it has been diverted by the military.

"We will try to do on-the-ground assessments," Fore said. "But at this time the needs are so immense, they are so large, that we're taking some risks to hope that we can get the assistance through to the ones who are most in need."

The advocacy group Human Rights Watch reported that supplies delivered by a U.S. C-130 aircraft Monday were offloaded by men wearing the shirts of the Union Solidarity and Development Association, a paramilitary organization that was implicated in the attempted murder of opposition leader and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.

In recent days, survivors have endured new rains. A storm was forming in the seas off Burma on Wednesday, but the U.N. weather agency discounted the likelihood that it could evolve into a new cyclone, the Reuters news agency reported.

U.N. agencies continue to press Burma for clearance to use helicopters, more boats and trucks to ferry supplies piling up at Rangoon airport. Many remote areas in the Irrawaddy Delta have yet to receive relief.

"We're working around the clock to get permission to use materials we believe would be helpful," said Marcus Prior, a spokesman for the U.N. World Food Program.

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