The UN today said only a tiny portion of international relief is reaching Burma’s cyclone victims, amid reports the country’s military regime is hoarding high-quality foreign aid for itself while people make do with rotten food.
“There is obviously still a lot of frustration that this aid effort hasn’t picked up pace” 10 days after the cyclone hit, said Richard Horsey, the spokesman for the UN humanitarian operation in Bangkok.
The UN said the World Food Programme is getting in 20% of the food needed because of bottlenecks, logistics problems and government-imposed restrictions.
The delays have only served to bolster complaints that the military is appropriating the aid for itself.
A long-time foreign resident of the country’s biggest city, Rangoon, said government officials have complained to him about military leaders misappropriating aid, though the UN could not confirm the report.
He said the officials told him that quantities of the high-energy biscuits rushed in on the World Food Programme’s first flights were sent to a military warehouse.
They were exchanged with what the officials said were “tasteless and low-quality” biscuits produced by the Industry Ministry to be handed out to cyclone victims, the foreign resident said.
He said it was not known if the high quality food was being sold on the black market or consumed by the military.
Still, the WFP said it had not heard of its supplies disappearing.
“We’ve had no reports whatsoever about any incidents of this kind,” Marcus Prior, a WFP spokesman, said in Bangkok.
A Burma government spokesman refused to comment. The allegations were impossible to confirm independently because of the massive restrictions imposed by the junta on journalists.
The military – which has ruled the country with an iron fist since 1962 – has taken control of most aid sent by other countries including the US, which made its first aid delivery Monday. Another cargo plane carrying blankets, water and mosquito netting arrived Tuesday.
US Marine Lt Col Douglas Powell said the situation remained fluid, but that flights were expected to continue in the coming days – which appears to broaden the original agreement for flights on Monday and Tuesday.
State television said the death toll had gone up by 2,335 to 34,273, and the number of missing stood at 27,838 after many of those listed as missing were accounted for. The United Nations says the actual death toll could be between 62,000 and 100,000.
State television said navy commander in chief Rear Adm Soe Thein told Adm Timothy Keating, commander of the US Pacific Forces, that basic needs of the storm victims are being fulfilled and that “skilful humanitarian workers are not necessary.”
Care Australia’s country director in Burma, Brian Agland, said members of his local staff brought back some of the rotting rice that’s being distributed in the devastated Irawaddy Delta.
“I have a small sample in my pocket, and it’s some of the poorest quality rice we’ve seen,” he said. “It’s affected by salt water and it’s very old.”
It’s unclear whether the rice, which is dark grey in colour and consists of very small grains, is coming from the government or from mills in the area or warehouses hit by the cyclone.
“Certainly, we are concerned that (poor quality rice) is being distributed,” Agland said. “The level of nutrition is very low.”
Many survivors also said they were either not getting any aid or were being handed rotten, mouldy rice.
“There is obviously still a lot of frustration that this aid effort hasn’t picked up pace” 10 days after the cyclone hit, said Horsey.
Cyclone Nargis devastated the delta on May 2-3, washing away homes and submerging large tracts of land under water. Some 2 million survivors, mostly poor rice farmers, are living in abject misery, facing disease and starvation.
The survivors are packed into Buddhist monasteries or camping in the open, drinking water contaminated by faecal matter, with dead bodies and animal carcasses floating around. Food and medicine are scarce.
The government has also barred nearly all foreigners experienced in managing such catastrophes from going to the delta west of Rangoon, and is expelling those who have managed to go in.
Jean-Sebastien Matte, an emergency co-ordinator with Doctors Without Borders, said his foreign staff have repeatedly been forced to return to Rangoon from the delta.
Armed police checkpoints were set up outside Rangoon on the roads to the delta, and all foreigners were being sent back by policemen who took down their names and passport numbers.
“No foreigners allowed,” a policeman said today after waving a car back.