Burma′s Door to Aid Creaks Open as UN Agencies Arrive | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 11.05.2008
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Burma's Door to Aid Creaks Open as UN Agencies Arrive

The UN refugee agency, UNHCR, said its first trucks had arrived in Burma, carrying emergency aid for survivors of the cyclone, while World Food Program flights resumed despite disputes with the country's ruling junta.

A worker of the United Nations Humanitarian Response Depot (UNHRD) helps to load an Airbus 300 for Yangon, Burma

World Food Program flights and UN Refugee Agency trucks started to arrive on Saturday

The trucks, with enough emergency material to provide shelter for up to 10,000 people, had crossed over from Thailand at the Friendship Bridge border at Mae Sot on Saturday, May 10. They bore plastic sheets and tents.

"This convoy marks a positive step in an aid effort so far marked by challenges and constraints," said Raymond Hall, UNHCR's Representative in Thailand. "We hope it opens up a possible corridor to allow more international aid to reach the cyclone victims."

Hall added: "What we are sending in by road is in addition to the supplies we have already procured locally in Yangon and the 100 tons of supplies we started airlifting today from Dubai."

UNHCR has also started airlifting 100 tons of shelter supplies, including 4,500 plastic sheets and 17,000 blankets, from its Dubai stockpile to Yangon early on Saturday.

The refugee agency is focusing on providing emergency shelter for the cyclone victims in the Irrawaddy delta and parts of Yangon, which were among the worst hit. More than one million people are estimated to have lost their homes after Cyclone Nargis hit last Friday.

UNHCR has already distributed $50,000 (32,300 euros) worth of shelter items bought locally in the aftermath of the storm.

The truck convoy is expected to take around two days from the border to Yangon in the south. The supplies, raided by UNHCR from its existing stockpiles normally intended for refugee camps scattered along the Thai-Burma border, will be distributed by UNHCR staff.

UNHCR negotiated a concession for the border posts to stay open at the weekend to allow the convoys through.

UNHCR launched a $187 million appeal for Burma on Friday which included six million to provide 250,000 cyclone victims with shelter.

Food Program jets leave for Burma despite disputes

Airport staff load crates United Nations aid which contains medicine, tents and food bound for Burma onto a Russian cargo aircraft in Sharjah, United Arab Emirates

The Burmese junta prevented aid from getting through

Meanwhile, the World Food Program (WFP) on Saturday resumed flying emergency supplies into cyclone-devastated Burma despite an ongoing dispute with the country's junta over how the aid will be distributed.

"Given the humanitarian crisis, we felt the need to continue the supplies," said Marcus Prior, a spokesman for the WFP in Bangkok.

On Friday, Burmese authorities at Yangon International Airport refused to hand over several tons of high-energy biscuits to WFP officials in Burma for distribution to hundreds of thousands of people desperately in need of food as a result of Cyclone Nargis.

"My understanding is that basically they wanted to distribute the food themselves," Prior told reporters.

While the WFP hashes out terms with Burma's military regime by which the emergency supplies may be released, the agency has allowed another three air shipments of supplies to Yangon, scheduled to arrive Saturday and Sunday.

The WFP generally tries to distribute disaster relief through its own personnel, but has made exceptions in the past in such countries as Ethiopia and North Korea.

"There is flexibility but for our credibility we need to be accountable to our donors," said Prior. "We need to provide an assurance that the food gets to the people in need."

Cyclone adds new dimension to junta's power consolidation

An aerial view of devastation caused by the cyclone Nargis

The floods and destruction increase the risk of disease

Burma's rulers also have their credibility at stake. The junta held a referendum on Saturday on a new constitution designed to cement their political dominance over future elected governments.

The cyclone, which may have killed as many as 100,000 people and left up to 1.9 million in need of emergency aid, has come at an awkward time for the regime.

The country's 400,000-strong military has been given the double task of monitoring the referendum while at the same time taking the lead in the distribution of emergency aid.

Over the past week, state-controlled newspapers and TV have highlighted pictures of military men passing out emergency supplies to the people affected by the cyclone, including, oddly, some shots showing officers handing out video cassette and DVD players to the needy.

The publicity stunt clashes with the reality. Recipients of government handouts have complained of the small quantities and poor quality.

But in Burma's media-controlled environment most people are unaware of the international furor over the junta's delay tactics in granting visas to disaster relief experts from the UN and other aid organizations, which is likely to lead to unnecessary additional deaths to hunger and disease.

Survivors at risk of disease epidemics

Burma's junta leader Sen. Gen. Than Shwe

Than Shwe and his junta's credibility is at stake

International aid organizations warned on Friday that diphtheria, cholera and malaria could spread in an epidemic of "apocalyptic proportions" if medical, food, water and other types of aid are not allowed to land, along with trained personnel to administer the support.

In its latest announcements, the government has confirmed 23,335 deaths and some 37,019 missing. UN officials on Friday estimated the death toll will climb to 63,000 to 100,000 based on reports from 18 aid organizations working in 55 devastated Burmese townships.

While aid is trickling in to the Irrawaddy, many people have apparently survived on Buddhist charity this week.

In Labutta, for instance, the population has doubled as refugees seek shelter and food in the relatively large city.

"There is now some aid coming in but many people are relying on the charity of the Burmese families who are residents in Labutta," said Heinke Veit, a director for the European Commission Humanitarian aid Office (ECHO).

Veit and sources at UNICEF denied reports that cases of cholera had already been detected in the delta area.

"The chief of health operations for UNICEF in Yangon said there is no evidence of cholera or typhoid yet, although it is a concern," said Shantha Bloemen, a spokesperson for UNICEF in Bangkok.

The International Federation of the Red Cross (IFRC) in Geneva said humanitarian aid had reached around 220,000 people, despite logistical difficulties.

The UN said it had received pledges of $77 million out of the total of $187 million that it has asked for to fund international relief efforts.

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