May 7, 2008 / 1:55 PM / 11 years ago

INTERVIEW-Myanmar must act now to clear aid red tape

By Darren Schuettler

BANGKOK, May 7 (Reuters) - Myanmar’s junta knows it needs outside help in the face of an "unprecedented emergency" after Cyclone Nargis, but it must act now to remove red tape delaying a massive international aid operation, a U.N. official said on Wednesday.

With large swathes of the Irrawaddy delta under water and up to one million people in need of shelter, water, medicine and food, the disaster presents a "major logistical challenge", Richard Horsey of the U.N. disaster response office said.

"The government recognizes this is an unprecedented emergency for Myanmar and it will require a huge relief effort with a big international component," he told Reuters in an interview in the Thai capital.

While the world body had permission to fly in emergency supplies, disaster and aid experts from the U.N. and other international aid agencies were still waiting for visas to enter the military-ruled former Burma.

"Visa applications have been in for 24-48 hours," Horsey, spokesman for the United Nations Office of the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), said.

"Now is the time that movement is expected on that and we do look to the authorities to issue the necessary clearances."

There were also problems getting customs permits and tax waivers on goods entering the country, although he hoped a deputy foreign minister appointed to liase with relief agencies would cut through the remaining red tape.

International patience is already wearing thin, with France suggesting invoking a U.N. "responsibility to protect" clause and delivering aid directly to Myanmar without waiting for approval from the military.

"We are seeing at the United Nations if we can’t implement the responsibility to protect, given that food, boats and relief teams are there, and obtain a United Nations’ resolution which authorises the delivery and imposes this on the Burmese government," Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said in Paris.

Foreign aid is trickling into Myanmar five days after the cyclone tore across five states, killing nearly 22,500 people and leaving 41,000 missing. But getting it to the people in need was a huge challenge, Horsey said.

"There are large swathes of the lower Irrawaddy delta completely under water. We are talking 5,000 sq km under water. It’s a vast area," he said.

"With all those dead mostly floating in the water at this point you can get some idea of the conditions facing the teams on the ground. It’s a major logistical challenge," he said.

Myanmar sent military helicopters with food and water into stricken areas on Wednesday, but with up to one million people in need of aid, a much bigger effort is needed.

"This is a fairly isolated country. It hasn’t had to deal with a disaster of this scale before. Clearly there is a lack of experience that any country of this kind would face," he said.

Getting large quantities of aid — water purification tablets, plastic sheeting, medical kits, mosquito nets, water and food — required a "coordinated, scaled-up response", but the final call was with the government.

"The determination on personnel and assets coming into the country, like planes or boats or other things, this is for the Myanmar authorities to make. They are a sovereign state and they are leading the effort," he said. (Editing by Ed Cropley and Sanjeev Miglani)

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