Foreign Relief Workers Arrive in Burmese Delta

Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, May 27, 2008; Page A07

BANGKOK, May 26 -- Foreign relief workers began filtering into Burma's Irrawaddy Delta on Monday, as aid agencies tested whether the ruling military junta would keep its promise to permit a major international effort to help the 2.5 million victims of Tropical Cyclone Nargis.

UNICEF, the U.N. children's agency, said it had received permission over the weekend to send six foreign technical experts to work in the delta region, which previously had been off-limits to foreign aid workers. On Monday, the U.N. World Food Program also deployed several international staff members, including a logistics officer, to the area.

Meanwhile, a foreign doctor and sanitation specialist working for a British charity who tried to travel to the delta without permission were turned back about 30 miles outside Rangoon, Burma's largest city.

Most international aid agencies have said they are seeking official permission to send foreign staffers to the delta, because of concerns over how the junta might respond to unauthorized travel.

"A disorderly mass influx of internationals into the delta will make them very, very nervous," said Andrew Kirkwood, country director of Save the Children.

Aid agencies are cautiously optimistic about their prospects. Their mission is all the more important, they say, because Burmese aid workers, who have been running relief efforts for the last three weeks, are overstretched.

"Things seem to be progressing," said John Sparrow of the International Federation of the Red Cross, which has 30 foreign technical experts now in Rangoon. "We are hopeful that in the next couple of days, we will get some news about what we can do and how we can progress."

A fire Monday morning at the Burmese Embassy in Bangkok, where many aid workers are awaiting visas to enter the country, forced the visa section to close temporarily, adding to confusion and anxiety.

Cyclone Nargis and the subsequent tidal surge killed about 78,000 people and left an additional 56,000 missing. An estimated 2.5 million survivors remain in need of food, clean water, shelter, medical care and help to get back on their feet.

After three weeks of barring foreign aid workers from the delta, Senior Gen. Than Shwe, Burma's powerful army chief, told U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on Friday that "genuine" humanitarian workers could join the relief effort.

The government, however, has still refused to permit access to U.S., French and British naval vessels carrying large quantities of relief supplies. France has ordered its ship to neighboring Thailand, where its supplies can be unloaded and then flown to Rangoon.

The United Nations estimates that about 1 million people have received some help since the cyclone hit, but mainly in areas around Rangoon, not in the worst-affected, hard-to-reach areas in the Irrawaddy Delta. U.N. officials say many survivors from the hard-hit areas are migrating north in search of help.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company