Myanmar’s frustrated aid drive puts faith in ASEAN

May 22nd, 2008 - 5:24 pm ICT by admin  

Bangkok, May 22 (DPA) Frustrated by the Myanmar junta’s constraints on a relief drive for 2.5 million people affected by Cyclone Nargis, the international aid community is counting on the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) to speed things up, aid workers said Thursday. The United Nations and Asean will hold a pledging conference in Yangon Sunday to seek donations for an accelerated aid drive for the victims of Cyclone Nargis, which hit Myanmar’s central coast on May 2-3 leaving at least 133,000 people dead or missing.

A UN-Asean task force was established earlier this week to liaison between the aid community and Myanmar’s military rulers to speed up the aid delivery to the cyclone’s victims.

Myanmar, a member of Asean, agreed to the formula at a meeting in Singapore on Monday.

“We appeal to Asean to use the mandate given to them to lead this task force to facilitate more aid coming into the country, not just in terms of aid supply but also in terms of expertise,” said Jemiah Mahmood, director of Mercy Malaysia, a non-governmental organization suppling emergency aid to Myanmar.

“The needs are immense,” said Mahmood, who was in Bangkok after returning from a tour of the Irrawaddy delta. She noted that while supplies are now reaching the main townships in the delta, the remoter areas remain off the aid map.

Almost three weeks after the storm, international aid has reached only 25 percent of the estimated 2.5 million people left in need of food, water, shelter and medicines.

The sluggishness of the emergency relief programme has been blamed largely on Myanmar’s reclusive military regime, a pariah among Western democracies, that has placed restrictions on the amount of aid coming into the country, for instance by granting limited landing rights at Yangon International Airport for relief cargo.

The junta has also refused to allow air drops of emergency aid from US and French warships off the Irrawaddy coast.

Myanmar authorities have only reluctantly granted visas to foreign relief experts, and many of those allowed in have been barred from travelling to the Irrawaddy delta region where the majority of the cyclone victims reside.

The junta’s stance may be behind the lukewarm response to a UN flash appeal for $200 million in emergency aid for Cyclone Nargis.

According to latest statistics, only 23 percent of the appeal has been met. Myanmar has not received aid from multilateral lenders such as the World Bank and IMF since 1988, when the regime cracked down on a pro-democracy movement and left 3,000 people dead.

Most bilateral aid programmes were also cancelled in 1988, and have never been resumed.

Aid agencies, such as Oxfam, see the upcoming UN-Asean meeting Sunday as an important means of securing more donations as the joint task force promises to surmount some of the difficulties thus far confronted in getting aid supplies out to the delta.

“We are encouraging them (donors) to support this initiative because this is the only door that is opening,” said Sarah Ireland, regional director for Oxfam.

“We hope that this Sunday, the solid front put up by ASEAN with the UN, is going to urge the donor governments to step up,” she added.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon arrived in Myanmar Thursday to get an assessment of the catastrophe and to prepare to chair the UN-Asean meeeting Sunday.

For those familiar with the past performance of Asean, which groups Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam, there are questions whether it will prove enough to cope with an emergency situation.

“Asean always need a consensus among it members, which is a time consuming process,” said Win Min, a lecturer on Myanmar affairs at Chiang Mai University.

“But this is better than nothing, especially for the people who are desperately in need of aid.”

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