International aid workers today finally began entering Burma’s cyclone-devastated delta after being blocked for more than three weeks by the country’s military junta.
But the UN stressed that an estimated 1.5 million people in the Irrwaddy river area were still in dire need and had not received aid. Official government estimates put the death toll at about 78,000 with an additional 56,000 people missing.
The apparent breakthrough in the flow of aid for victims of Cyclone Nargis came after promises made by Burma’s ruling generals to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
“International aid workers are starting to move to the delta,” said a spokesman for the UN humanitarian effort in Burma. Helicopters also began shuttling high-energy biscuits and ready-to-eat meals into the hardest hit area.
The French aid agency Doctors Without Borders said its teams had entered remote villages around the delta town of Bogalay where people had not eaten for three days.
“Thousands of people have not seen any aid workers and still have not received any assistance,” the group said.
Burma’s leaders are wary of foreign aid workers and international agencies because they fear an influx of outsiders could undermine their control.
The junta is also hesitant to have its people see aid coming directly from countries such as the United States, which it has long treated as a hostile power seeking to invade or colonise.
The UN World Food Program said it has sent three international staff into the delta since the weekend and hopes to deploy larger numbers in coming days.
Already widely condemned for blocking cyclone relief, the junta may face further international outrage if it does not release pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi from five years of house arrest believed to expire today. So far it has given no indication it will free the Nobel Peace Prize laureate.
Suu Kyi has been confined for more than 12 of the past 18 years to her home in Burma’s largest city, Rangoon. Her latest period of arrest began in 2003.