UN: Myanmar's refusal to grant visas 'unprecedented'

At least 62,000 people dead or missing; more than 1 million homeless people wait for food, shelter and medicine.

myanmar 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
myanmar 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
The UN blasted Myanmar's military government Friday, saying its refusal to let in foreign aid workers to help victims of a devastating cyclone was "unprecedented" in the history of humanitarian work. While the junta dithered and appeared overwhelmed by last Saturday's disaster - the worst in the country's records - more than 1 million homeless people waited for food, shelter and medicine, many crammed in Buddhist monasteries or just camped in the open. Entire villages have been submerged in the worst-hit Irrawaddy delta with bodies floating in salty water and children ripped from their parents arms. At least 62,000 people are dead or missing. Aid groups have warned that thousands of children may have been orphaned and a medical disaster is waiting to happen. The UN estimates 1.5 million people have been "severely affected" and voiced "significant concern" about the disposal of dead bodies. While accepting international aid, the isolationist regime of this Southeast Asian nation has refused to grant visas to foreign aid workers who could assess the extent of the disaster and manage the logistics. "The frustration caused by what appears to be a paperwork delay is unprecedented in modern humanitarian relief efforts," said Paul Risley, a spokesman for the UN World Food Program in Bangkok. "It's astonishing." He said the WFP submitted 10 visa applications around the world, including six in Bangkok, Thailand, but that none has been approved. "We strongly urge the government of Myanmar to process these visa applications as quickly as possible, including work over the weekend," he said. A Norway-based opposition news network, the Democratic Voice of Burma, provided graphic details of misery in the Irrawaddy delta, which few foreign reporters have been able to reach because roads have been flooded and bridges washed away. Myanmar has refused to allow foreign journalists to come in. In the village of Kongyangon, someone had written in Burmese, "We are all in trouble. Please come help us" on the black asphalt, a DVB video showed. A few feet (meters) away was another plea: "We're hungry," the words too small to be seen by air rescuers. Grim assessments about the immediate future continued. "The delta region is known as the country's granary and the cyclone has hit before the harvest. If the harvest has been destroyed this will have a devastating impact on food security in Myanmar," said the aid group Action Against Hunger. Anders Ladegaard, the secretary-general of the Danish Red Cross, called the relief operation "a nightmare." "There are problems to the aid inside (Myanmar) and there are problems to get the aid out to the delta area. There are almost no boats and no helicopters," Ladegaard said by satellite telephone to Danish broadcaster DR. In Yangon itself, the price of increasingly scarce water shot up by more than 500 percent while rice and oil jumped by 60 percent over the last three days, Action Against Hunger said in a statement. Hardships in the country's largest city have prompted some embassies, including the US, to send diplomats' families out of the country. In an e-mail to The Associated Press, Shari Villarosa, the top US diplomat in Yangon, said the embassy is letting family members depart the country until the situation stabilizes. The junta said Friday it was grateful to the international community for its assistance, which has included 11 chartered planes loaded with aid supplies. But it said in a statement that the best way to help was to just send in material rather than personnel. It said one relief flight was sent back after landing in Yangon on Thursday because it carried a search and rescue team and media who had not received permission to enter the country. It did not give details, but said the plane had flown in from Qatar, which apparently referred to one of the four UN flights that was allowed in with high-energy biscuits. According to the state-media 22,997 people died and 42,019 are missing from Cyclone Nargis. Villarosa said the number of dead could eventually exceed 100,000 because of post-cyclone illnesses. On Friday, Japan said it will give aid worth $10 million through the UN to Myanmar, adding to the massive amounts of aid that has been pledged by foreign governments. The junta also is preoccupied with holding a referendum on Saturday on a new constitution that is expected to cement the military's grip on power. The referendum has been postponed in certain cyclone-hit areas. The New York-based Human Rights Watch joined others in urging Myanmar to postpone the referendum entirely and to focus on "relieving the horrendous human suffering." Myanmar has banned vehicles from going in and out of the country into neighboring Thailand during the referendum, said Thai police Lt. Natawut Tamaput at a border post in Mae Sai, opposite the Myanmar town of Tachilek. Thailand is hosting a virtual army of relief groups poised to rush into Myanmar with critical aid and experts once permission is granted. However, few in Myanmar believed the junta would relent. "Believe me, the government will not allow outsiders to go into the devastated area," said Yangon food shop owner Joseph Kyaw. "The government only cares about its own stability. They don't care about the plight of the people," he said. Among those waiting in Thailand were members of the USAID Disaster Assistance Response Team. Air Force transport planes and helicopters packed with supplies also sat waiting for a green light to enter Myanmar. By rejecting the US aid offer, the junta is refusing to take advantage of Washington's enormous ability to deliver aid quickly, which was evident during the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that killed 230,000 people in a dozen nations. The first foreign military aid following that disaster reached the hardest-hit nation, Indonesia, two days later. The most significant help came when US helicopters began flying relief missions to isolated communities along the Indonesian coast. Thai Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej told reporters Friday that he will try to go to Myanmar on Sunday to persuade the junta to accept US help. But the junta told Samak his Myanmar counterpart is too busy to meet with him, said a Thai army general, speaking on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the media.