Myanmar still resisting aid, B'nai B'rith official says

Foreign agencies, regime launch major assessment of cyclone survivors' needs.

Schneider Myanmar 224.88 (photo credit: Courtesy - B'nai B'rith)
Schneider Myanmar 224.88
(photo credit: Courtesy - B'nai B'rith)
Almost three weeks after the first IsraAid (an Israeli non-profit organization) team entered devastated Myanmar, the harsh restrictions on foreign aid workers set by the country's ruling Junta remain in place. Though the government is now allowing foreign aid workers who were already in Myanmar before the cyclone into the delta region, they are still restricting foreign aid teams who entered the country after the disaster - including from Israel. "The biggest challenge that foreign aid teams are encountering right now is the resistance of the Myanmar government to allow international agencies, whether UN or NGOs, into the highly damaged region," said Alan Schneider, director of B'nai B'rith World Center of Jerusalem, and a member of the second IsraAid foreign aid team to enter Myanmar that has just returned home. Schneider's team was responsible for providing aid to a small village near the Yangon River. The village, located just outside the delta area, was shattered by the devastating cyclone that hit just one month ago. "The village where I was based was not highly restricted by security because it was outside the delta," Schneider told The Jerusalem Post. Myanmar's head of state, Gen. Than Shwe, promised to let in more international relief workers two weeks ago, but other than several dozen visas being approved and consent for a very small number of UN water and health experts to visit the delta area, little has changed. "What is frustrating for many of the NGOs who are in Myanmar is that they are there but are still not allowed to work freely," said Schneider. "They see the devastation and know that there is ten times more further west but they are not allowed to reach that point." As Schneider traveled down the Yangon River in a local boat he saw rice fields flooded with seawater, and fresh water pools, brackish from the overflowing salt water of the Ayeyarwady River. According to Schneider, the government's restrictions against new foreign aid teams are just making the situation worse, and with an estimated 134,000 people missing or dead, this is something it can't afford to do. "When I entered the village I saw how desperate these people were for help," said Schneider. "Many of their homes, that were made of bamboo, were blown down, roofs were blown off and brick buildings were tilted and needed to be rebuilt." Foreign aid workers are currently concentrating on aid they can provide within the limits set by the government's restrictions; various organizations are distributing essentials such as food, water purifiers, blankets and medicine. "One of the things that the government is ready to accept is material aid, so that is what we are going to concentrate on providing," said Schneider. Also, safety experts such as Dr. Efraim Laor, director of FIRST (an NGO), have helped institute a training program which prepares local safety teams for what they will see, and the level of care and support they need to provide. "The locals are not used to these horrible conditions. They are also not trained to deal with such atrocities. But they are the only ones that are able to reach the area so we need to provide them with as much training as possible," said Schneider. A new IsraAid team to Myanmar is currently being prepared. "We are now trying to implement programs and get our teams as close as possible to the devastated region," said Shachar Zahavi, the founder and coordinator of IsraAid. In Myanmar, a major operation was launched Tuesday to assess the needs of desperate storm survivors, a sign the military regime is finally ready to cooperate in international aid efforts five weeks after Cyclone Nargis slammed into the country. However, the positive development contrasted with reports that 18 cyclone victims - women and children - on their way to the United Nations office to plead for help were arrested in the commercial capital, Yangon. Authorities detained 18 women and children Tuesday as they walked to the UN offices in Yangon to complain about not receiving any government assistance, according to a government official who refused to be identified for fear of retaliation. The group, from Dagon township on the outskirts of Yangon, was bundled into a waiting police car and remain in detention, witnesses said. Some 250 experts from the UN, the Myanmar government and Southeast Asian nations headed into the Irrawaddy delta by truck, boat and helicopter for a village-by-village survey, the United Nations said. Over the next 10 days, they will determine how much food, clean water and temporary shelter the 2.4 million survivors require, along with the cost of rebuilding houses and schools and reviving the farm-based economy. "It has taken quite a long time but this shows the government is on board by its commitment to facilitate the relief operation and the scaling up that people are asking for," said Amanda Pitt, a UN spokeswoman in Bangkok, Thailand. The UN estimated the cyclone affected 2.4 million people and warned more than 1 million of them, mostly in the delta, still need help. The cyclone killed more than 78,000 people in impoverished Myanmar. AP contributed to this report.