Aid far below needs of Burma survivors: UN

Relief supplies pushed into Burma by the international community remain far below the needs of up to 2.5 million victims of the devastating cyclone, the United Nations said.

In its latest estimate, the UN World Food Programme said it would have to rush in 390 tons of food every day to reach the 750,000 victims it is targeting over the next month.

Only less than 300 tons have been distributed since Cyclone Nargis struck on May 2 and 3, killing at least 43,000 people and turning the low-lying Irrawaddy delta into a quagmire of shattered villages and squalid refugee camps ringed by fetid waters.

Blighting the international effort is the ruling junta’s refusal to allow almost all foreign nationals into the delta area, insisting relief operations there can be handled by Burma nationals.

The UN says the regime has issued 40 visas to its staffers and another 46 to non-government agencies, but these personnel have been confined to the immediate Rangoon area.

Among those seeking a visa is the world body’s top emergency relief co-ordinator who UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon wants to dispatch to Burma.

The secretary general’s office said John Holmes, the undersecretary general for humanitarian affairs, would be sent to Burma to try to “open up more access” for UN relief personnel in some of the hardest-hit areas. Holmes has applied for a visa to enter Burma but has not yet received approval to visit, Ban’s office said.

The official death toll from Cyclone Nargis continued to soar and 1.5 to 2.5 million survivors remained in desperate need of assistance.

The junta, meanwhile, announced that a constitution that critics say will cement military rule had won overwhelming support in a referendum that the junta went forward with on May 10 even though much of the country was reeling from the storm.

Yesterday state radio broadcast a warning of legal action against anyone hoarding or misusing aid for the victims.

Burma’s military, which has ruled the country for 46 years, has itself come under suspicion of diverting relief supplies, though it denies the allegation and solid evidence has yet to surface.

Tons of foreign aid – including water, blankets, mosquito nets, tarpaulins, medicines and tents – have been sent to Burma, but delivery has been slowed by bottlenecks, poor infrastructure and bureaucratic tangles.

New York-based Human Rights Watch said countries delivering aid to Burma should insist on monitoring to ensure aid reached the cyclone victims most in need and to prevent the military government from seizing it.

The group also said it confirmed a report this week that the junta had seized high-protein biscuits supplied by the international community and distributed low-quality, locally produced substitutes to the people.

The state radio report obliquely denied the military was misappropriating aid.

“The government has systematically accepted donations and has distributed the relief goods immediately and directly to the victims,” it said.

“Effective legal action will be taken against those who hoard, sell or buy, use or misuse the international or local donations or relief goods or cash to the cyclone victims.”

Private citizens who have attempted to bring aid from Rangoon to the Irrawaddy River delta, the area worst affected by the cyclone, said they had been blocked and ordered to hand over their supplies to the army, which is directing the relief operation.

The civilians, who asked not to be identified for fear of official retribution, said they did not want to hand over their supplies because they feared they would be pilfered by the army, but had no choice.

Elisabeth Byrs, spokeswoman for the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs, said the United Nations has been looking into the issue.

“Some aid workers visited all the major markets in Rangoon to see whether they could find out anything by observations or interviewing people. They found no evidence of any sale of relief goods or hoarding or any credible report on this.”

State television reported 43,318 fatalities from the storm, an increase of more than one-third since the beginning of the week, and almost 5,000 more than reported just a day earlier. The number of missing remained at 27,838.

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies estimated on Wednesday that the total death toll may be between 68,833 and 127,990. The UN has said more than 100,000 may have died.

The UN and the Red Cross say 1.6 million to 2.5 million people are in urgent need of food, water and shelter. Only 270,000 have been reached so far by aid groups.

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