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.
Among the people trying to get aid into the cyclone zone are Burmese living abroad. Thailand alone has an estimated 1.5 million migrant workers and political dissidents from the country.
For six days after Nargis destroyed his home town of Bogalay, Win Min, an exiled Burmese political science lecturer in Thailand, was distraught over the fate of family and friends. After repeated efforts to call, he finally reached a family friend, who found his relatives sitting in the rain, their home destroyed. They were otherwise unscathed.
He and other academics have been translating relevant information from U.N. Web sites -- on such topics as how to dispose of bodies -- into Burmese and sending it to friends in Burma who are involved in impromptu volunteer relief efforts.
"It's beyond stress, and beyond sadness, seeing all your fellow citizens suffering like this," Win Min said. "It's very, very terrible -- beyond comprehension. At least this is something I can do."
Some Burmese university students are rushing home with cash and supplies, and volunteering in the disaster zone. Others, unable to return for financial, political or other reasons, are donating cash, supplies or advice from abroad.
Htoo Chit, director of Human Rights Education and Development, which educates the children of Burmese workers, said some migrants from the worst affected areas have returned from the beach resorts of southern Thailand to search for family members.
"Migrants are really angry that foreigners want to help the disaster victims but the government is not allowing them to go there," said Ko Ko Aung, a Burmese volunteer with Thailand's Labor Rights Promotion Network. "Even though the migrants' own situation is not so good, they are trying to collect clothes, or medicine, or money or whatever they can offer."
For the most part, support from Burmese living overseas is being sent though informal channels, including a complex, preexisting underground financial network. The aid goes to trusted local institutions and groups, including Buddhist monasteries, which are trying to shelter and assist homeless victims.
But initiatives are under pressure from military authorities, who are determined to control the relief effort and uneasy about the potential for unrest. Some monasteries have been ordered to stop taking large donations and to send all refugees to makeshift government shelters in schools.
"This is a very paternalistic regime," Win Min said. "They want people to rely on them, depend on them. That is why they don't want other people to distribute food -- it will undermine their legitimacy."
Still, the determination to help is strong. Ko Taw, a Burmese engineer in Singapore, donated $300, as well as some used clothes for men, women and children that his family washed and carefully ironed before taking them to an impromptu collection center in a mall popular among the city-state's Burmese residents.
"We feel so sad for the victims -- we are doing everything in our capacity to help," Ko Taw said. "But it is no substitute for international aid."
Staff writer Glenn Kessler in Washington contributed to this report.