Myanmar junta insists aid effort running smoothly

YANGON Thu May 15, 2008 3:08pm EDT

1 of 30. An orphan and a nursemaid stay at a shelter as a foreign nongovernmental organization medical team arrive to treat them at a village outside Yangon May 15, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/Stringer

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YANGON (Reuters) - Myanmar's military government said on Thursday its cyclone relief effort was moving along swiftly even as foreign powers warned of starvation and disease among up to 2.5 million people left destitute by the storm.

The European Union's top aid official met government ministers in Yangon and urged them to allow in foreign aid workers and essential equipment to prevent more deaths. But his trip did not yield any breakthroughs.

"You know, relations between Myanmar and the international community are difficult," Louis Michel told Reuters. "But that is not my problem."

"The time is not for political discussion. It's time to deliver aid to save lives."

Earlier, the reclusive generals signaled they would not budge.

"We have already finished our first phase of emergency relief. We are going onto the second phase, the rebuilding stage," state television quoted Prime Minister Thein Sein as telling his Thai counterpart this week.

Separately, the junta announced an overwhelming vote in favor of an army-backed constitution in a referendum held after the cyclone despite calls for a delay in the light of the disaster.

Nearly two weeks after the storm tore through the heavily populated Irrawaddy delta rice bowl -- leaving up to 128,000 people dead -- supplies of food, medicine and temporary shelter have been sent in dribs and drabs to devastated communities.

In the delta town of Bogalay, where around 10,000 people are thought to have died, people complained of forced labour and low supplies of food at state-run refugee centers.

"They have to break stones at the construction sites. They are paid K1,000 ($1) per day but are not provided any food," said Ko Hla Min, who lost nine family members in the storm.

Along the river in Bogalay rotting corpses remain tangled in the scrub. Villagers fish, wash and bathe in the same river.

The United Nations has said more than half a million people may now be sheltering in temporary settlements.

The United Nations has increased its estimate of the number of people in urgent need of aid to 2.5 million, and called for a high-level donors' conference to deal with the crisis.

U.N. spokeswoman Michel Montas told reporters on Thursday that Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's deputy, U.N. humanitarian affairs chief John Holmes, would go to Myanmar in the next five or six days, where he hoped to persuade the junta to grant U.N. workers more access to the delta region.

"Inconsistent access to the flooded delta region, damage to infrastructure and communications, and heavy rainfall pose serious logistical challenges, so the level of assistance is still falling far short of what is required," she said.

"Concern is deepening over the growing risk of outbreaks of disease, especially with people migrating outwards from the affected area in search of basic necessities," Montas said.

Myanmar state television raised its official death toll on Thursday to 43,328, while leaving the injured and missing figures unchanged at 1,403 injured and 27,838 respectively. Independent experts say the figures are probably far higher.

POLITICAL PRESSURE

Despite calls to postpone its constitutional referendum after the disaster, the junta went ahead on May 10 in areas not seriously affected by the cyclone.

It said on Thursday more than 92 percent of the ballots cast were in favour of the charter.

The military sees the constitution as a key step in its democracy roadmap, but critics say it will only entrench their rule because it gives the military an automatic 25 percent of seats in parliament and control of key ministries.

"This referendum was full of cheating and fraud across the country," said Nyan Win, a spokesman for the opposition National League for Democracy.

A vote in the cyclone-hit areas is set for May 24.

The junta has consistently resisted outside calls for faster and more transparent moves to democracy, and since the cyclone has rebuffed calls for a full-blown international aid effort.

TIN ROOFS

The United States and other countries continued to fly aid into Yangon on Thursday despite unconfirmed reports some supplies were being diverted by the army.

The United States has completed 13 flights with water, food and other supplies. The U.S. military plans more flights for Friday but has not received clearance from Myanmar yet.

"To the best of our ability, to date, we have not seen any U.S. assistance that has been diverted," Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said.

France and Britain said they were sending emergency supplies to Myanmar to help victims of Cyclone Nargis.

In Bogalay relief materials were being held in storage waiting for distribution and government officials sold tin-sheets for roofs at K4,900 ($5) apiece, far above the budget of most.

Po Aung, who survived the tidal wave that tore through his village by clinging onto a tree, just wants to go home.

"Those dead are gone. But, we the remaining want to return to our own place," said the 57-year old, one of 80 survivors from a village of over 500. "We are very sad and disappointed too. We just don't know what to do."

(Additional reporting by Nopporn Wong-Anan and Darren Schuettler in BANGKOK; Writing by Carmel Crimmins and Jerry Norton; Editing by Charles Dick)

(For more stories on Myanmar cyclone click on or follow the link to Reuters AlertNet www.alertnet.org)

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