By Darren Schuettler
BANGKOK, May 8 (Reuters) - Paul Heymans, a disaster-hardened aid coordinator who has worked in war-ravaged Darfur and the Kashmir earthquake, is frustrated as he waits in Bangkok for a visa to cyclone-hit Myanmar. The 38-year-old Dutch logistics expert for Medicins Sans Frontieres is among several dozen foreign aid workers cooling their heels around the world as they wait for the former Burma’s ruling generals to let them in.
"Getting there is half the job in the first couple of days in a disaster," he told Reuters.
"At the moment we are sitting in Bangkok waiting for the visa situation to get sorted," said Heymans, one of four MSF experts waiting in the Thai capital for visas to join their largely local staff.
Myanmar has allowed a handful of cargo flights to land in the former capital Yangon and unload emergency supplies for up to one million people left homeless by Cyclone Nargis.
Nearly $40 million in cyclone aid has been pledged from around the world.
But six days into a disaster that killed nearly 22,500 and left 41,000 missing, aid groups in Bangkok were still in the dark about when they might get visas — permits tightly guarded by a regime deeply suspicious of the outside world.
Richard Horsey, a spokesman for the U.N. humanitarian affairs coordination office, said 30-40 "critical" U.N. and other aid agency staff were in the visa queue, most of them in Bangkok.
"A few have got visas, but most of them are still waiting for the green light from the Myanmar authorities," he said, adding the process was "pretty hit-and-miss".
Some opponents accuse the junta of stalling because they don’t want an influx of foreigners into the countryside during Saturday’s referendum on an army-drafted constitution that looks set to cement the military’s grip on power.
WE’RE NO SPIES
The United States, a fierce critic of the regime which has nevertheless offered $3.25 million in cyclone aid, urged the generals to allow its disaster response teams inside.
"These are the people we want to send in," Eric John, U.S. ambassador to Thailand, told a news conference to "put a face" on the U.S. aid team waiting in Bangkok.
"They are not going in to overthrow the government. They are not going in to spy. They have specific skills to respond to a disaster," he told reporters as the disaster experts, a mixture of men and women wearing USAID shirts and vests, looked on.
Aid agency officials say they need experts on the ground to assess and coordinate the massive operation they say is desperately needed for Myanmar’s five declared disaster zones, home to some 24 million people.
"We haven’t been told ‘no’ but what matters is we haven’t been told ‘yes’" said Tony Banbury, Asia regional director of the U.N.’s World Food Programme.
Other disaster-hit nations have given quicker approvals for aid planes and visas.
After Cyclone Sidr struck Bangladesh last year, killing 3,500 people, the WFP and other aid organisations had multiple flights landing within 48 hours.
In the wake of the 2004 Asian tsunami, an air bridge of military aircraft from many nations was opened within 72 hours to hardest-hit Indonesia, where more than half of the 230,000 victims were killed.
Despite the magnitude of this disaster — the most devastating cyclone to hit Asia since 1991, when 143,000 people died in Bangladesh — Myanmar’s reclusive generals have been reluctant to open up their doors.
The United States and Thailand had thought the junta had agreed to let a U.S military cargo plane fly in supplies, but the green light proved premature.
"We’re in a long line of nations that are ready, able and willing to help. And we’re also in a long line of nations the Burmese don’t trust," ambassador John said. (Editing by Ed Cropley, Bill Tarrant and Alex Richardson)