Burma’s military regime distributed international aid today but plastered the boxes with names of top generals in an apparent effort to turn the relief effort for last week’s devastating cyclone into a propaganda exercise.
The United Nations sent in three more planes and several trucks loaded with aid even though the junta took over its first two shipments.
The government agreed to let a US cargo plane bring in supplies on Monday, but foreign disaster experts were still being barred entry.
State-run television continuously ran images of top generals – including the junta leader, Senior Gen. Than Shwe – handing out boxes of aid to survivors at elaborate ceremonies.
One box bore the name of Lt. Gen. Myint Swe, a rising star in the government hierarchy, in bold letters that overshadowed a smaller label reading: “Aid from the Kingdom of Thailand.”
“We have already seen regional commanders putting their names on the side of aid shipments from Asia, saying this was gift from them and then distributing it in their region,” said Mark Farmaner, director of Burma Campaign UK, which campaigns for human rights and democracy in the country.
“It is not going to areas where it is most in need,” he said in London.
State media say 23,335 people died and 37,019 are missing after Cyclone Nargis, which submerged entire villages in the Irrawaddy delta. International aid organisations say the death toll could climb to more than 100,000 as conditions worsen.
The UN estimates 1.5 million to two million people have been severely affected and has voiced concern about the disposal of bodies.
With phone lines down, roads blocked and electricity networks destroyed, it is nearly impossible to reach isolated areas in the delta, complicated by the lack of experienced international aid workers and equipment.
But the junta has refused to grant access to foreign experts, saying it will only accept donations from foreign charities and governments, and then will deliver the aid on its own.
Farmaner said the world needs to move to deliver aid directly to victims.
“People we are speaking to in Burma say aid must be delivered anyway even if the regime doesn’t give permission. We have had a week to convince the regime to behave reasonably, and they are still blocking aid. So the international community needs to wake up and take bolder steps,” he said.
But aid providers are unlikely to pursue unilateral deliveries like airdrops because of the diplomatic firestorm that it could set off.
So far, relief workers have reached 220,000 cyclone victims, only a small fraction of the number of people affected, the Red Cross said. Three Red Cross aid flights loaded with shelter kits and other emergency supplies landed Friday without incident.
But the government seized two planeloads of high-energy biscuits – enough to feed 95,000 people – sent by the UN World Food Program. Despite the seizure, WFP was sending three more planes today from Dubai, Cambodia and Italy even though those could be confiscated, too.
“We are working around the clock with the authorities to ensure the kind of access that we need to ensure it goes to people that need it most,” WFP spokesman Marcus Prior said in Bangkok, Thailand.
Heavy rain forecast in the next week is certain to exacerbate the misery. Diplomats and aid groups warned the number of dead could eventually exceed 100,000 because of illnesses and said thousands of children may have been orphaned.
Survivors from one of the worst-affected areas, near the town of Bogalay, were among those fighting hunger, illness and wrenching loneliness.
“All my 28 family members have died,” said Thein Myint, a 68-year-old fisherman who wept while describing how the cyclone swept away the rest of his family. “I am the only survivor.”
The government’s abilities are limited. It has only a few dozen helicopters, most of which are small and old. It also has about 15 transport planes, primarily small jets unable to carry hundreds of tons of supplies.
“Not only don’t they have the capacity to deliver assistance, they don’t have experience,” said Farmaner. “It’s already too late for many people. Every day of delays is costing thousands of lives.”
About 20,000 body bags were being sent so volunteers from the Burma chapter of the Red Cross can start collecting bodies, said Anders Ladekarl, head of the Danish Red Cross.