May 12, 2008 / 6:05 AM / 10 years ago

Anger mounts in Bangkok at Myanmar aid visa delays

BANGKOK (Reuters) - A furious rescue worker accused Myanmar’s military junta on Monday of crimes against humanity for refusing to give visas to aid officials desperate to enter the country to help the 1.5 million survivors of Cyclone Nargis.

“They say they will call, but it’s always wait, wait, wait,” Pierre Fouillant of the Comite de Secours Internationaux, a French disaster rescue agency, told Reuters after being turned away from the former Burma’s embassy in the Thai capital.

“I’ve never seen delays like this, never,” said Fouillant, a veteran of 10 humanitarian disasters. “It’s a crime against humanity. It should be against the law. It’s like they are taking a gun and shooting their own people.”

Like dozens of others, Fouillant applied on Thursday for a business visa, his only option since the military-ruled and isolated southeast Asian nation has no such thing as an “emergency aid worker” visa.

The embassy was closed on Friday for a Thai holiday, and on Saturday and Sunday. It opened as normal on Monday morning.

At least 100,000 people are thought to have died in the May 2 cyclone and storm surge in the Irrawaddy delta, a death toll that could rise dramatically if survivors do not get access to food, clean water and medicine in the next few days, experts say.

Reuters witnesses on the edges of the disaster zone say towns and villages are being swamped by huge numbers of cyclone refugees and cannot cope.

There is virtually no government assistance and food is running out. Some residents say they are afraid the desperate evacuees will be forced to turn to looting.

FRUSTRATION

Against this backdrop, small groups of rescue workers are having to wait outside the iron-spiked, grey walls of the embassy compound in Bangkok while their leaders and local visa agents try to see if their applications have got anywhere.

“It is very frustrating,” said Australian firefighter Craig Allan, who dropped everything at home to get to Bangkok and apply for a visa on Thursday.

His agency, part of Baptist World Aid, is called “Rescue 24” as it is meant to be able to put a team on the ground within 24 hours of any disaster anywhere in the world. In this case, it might be 24 days, he joked bleakly.

The U.N. said its top representative in Myanmar had flown to Naypyidaw, the generals’ new capital, on Monday to hand over in person a list of 60 “critical” U.N. and relief agency staff.

Despite this, U.N. officials said none of its staff in Bangkok had received any visas on Monday. They also said foreign staff inside the country were prevented from leaving Yangon.

“There are limits, if not bans, on staff going to the delta,” Terje Skavdal of the U.N.’s humanitarian arm told reporters.

Patrick Michaudel, a French employee of medical services firm SOS International, with clinics in Yangon, was almost in tears as he left the embassy after a fruitless week-long visa wait.

When he got to the front of the queue, Michaudel was elated to see his passport open on the desk with a visa inside.

He could only watch in horror as a female official then carefully peeled the visa sticker out of his passport and crudely covered up the partial stamp on the passport page with liquid paper.

“No reason, no reason. She just peeled it out,” he said, with a shrug of the shoulders. “I’ve had enough of this. I’m going home.”

Writing by Ed Cropley; Editing by Darren Schuettler

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