YANGON (Reuters) - International fears about the plight of 1.5 million victims in cyclone-ravaged Myanmar deepened on Tuesday as the United Nations and Western powers suggested helpless people could have been robbed of food and other aid.
As if fears of shoddy aid distribution were not enough, heavy rains pelted survivors in Myanmar’s Irrawaddy delta, complicating the already slow delivery of aid to hundreds of thousands of homeless people facing hunger and disease.
As more foreign aid trickled into the former Burma, critics ratcheted up the pressure on its military rulers to accelerate a relief effort that is only delivering an estimated tenth of the supplies needed in the devastated delta.
Speaking at a regular news conference in New York, U.N. spokeswoman Michel Montas said the United Nations was concerned that some aid sent to Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, might be diverted to people who were not victims of Cyclone Nargis.
And Britain’s U.N. Ambassador John Sawers told reporters in New York that Britain had also heard reports that aid was being diverted but had no hard proof confirming them.
“If they do turn out to be true, we would be very concerned indeed,” he said. “This just underlines the necessity of the Burmese authorities accepting that their own capacity to distribute aid to 1.5 million people” is insufficient.
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Zalmay Khalilzad said concerns about aid diversion were another reason why “we want more people there to be able to distribute the aid.”
In Brussels, the European Union called on the military junta to allow entry to aid workers to help victims avert “an even greater tragedy,” and France urged U.N. action if the junta did not cooperate. Spain said that failure to allow aid in could amount to a crime against humanity.
The United Nations says more than 1.5 million people are struggling to survive and up to 100,000 are dead or missing after cyclone Nargis hit.
U.N. spokeswoman Elisabeth Byrs said in Geneva it was also vital to secure the means to deliver aid.
“We need a kind of air bridge or sea bridge, and huge means (just) as the aid delivery we did in the tsunami, it is the same kind of logistical operation,” said Byrs, of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
The junta has accepted aid from the outside world but the help has only trickled in as the rulers have made it clear they do not want outsiders distributing it.
In a statement after emergency talks on Myanmar in Brussels, EU development ministers called on Yangon “to offer free and unfettered access to international humanitarian experts, including the expeditious delivery of visa and travel permits.”
The EU ministers stopped short of endorsing a French call to deliver aid if necessary without the junta’s permission.
France’s junior minister for human rights said it had the backing of Britain and Germany to call on the U.N. Security Council for aid to be taken into Myanmar without the government’s green light if necessary.
“We have called for the ‘responsibility to protect’ to be applied in the case of Burma,” Rama Yade told reporters.
British officials said London would welcome discussion of the ‘responsibility to protect,’ a 2005 U.N. resolution conceived to assist victims of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity but not natural disasters.
But the official did not consider the proposal realistic given Russian and Chinese objections.
An Australian air force plane landed in Yangon, Myanmar’s main city, with 31 metric tons of emergency supplies, a day after the first U.S. military aid flight arrived in a country Washington has described as an “outpost of tyranny.”
Two more U.S. flights arrived on Tuesday as part of a “confidence-building” effort to prod Myanmar’s reclusive generals into allowing a larger international relief operation 11 days after the disaster.
Tens of thousands of people throughout the delta are crammed into Buddhist monasteries and schools after arriving in towns that were poor even before the disaster.
Lacking food, water and sanitation, they face the threat of diseases. The heavy rains added to their misery.
“Where I am now, there’s over 10,000 homeless people and it’s pouring rain,” Bridget Gardener of the International Red Cross said during a rare tour of the delta by an aid official.
While a steady stream of aid flights have landed in Yangon, only a fraction of the relief needed is getting to the delta due to flooding and the junta’s desire to keep most foreign aid and logistics experts either out of the country or in Yangon.
Myanmar state television said six ships carrying 500 metric tons of supplies had left Yangon for the delta on Tuesday.
International relief organizations say their local staff are stretched to the breaking point, while Medicins Sans Frontieres said its workers faced “increasing constraints.”
In New York, the U.N. spokeswoman Montas noted that “a very small percentage of victims have so far received the aid.”
One Yangon businessman who returned from a personal aid mission to Bogalay, a delta township where at least 10,000 people were killed, told Reuters that soldiers were appropriating aid.
“There are still some villages in the worst-hit areas that nobody has got to,” the man said. “Around Bogalay, private donors are not allowed to distribute their assistance to the victims themselves. We had to hand over what we had.”
Additional reporting by Louis Charbonneau at the United Nations Carmel Crimmins in Bangkok; David Brunnstrom and Ingrid Melander in Brussels; Writing by Louis Charbonneau and Peter Millership; Editing by Philip Barbara