UN resumes aid flights to cyclone-hit Myanmar

May 10th, 2008 - 6:37 pm ICT by admin  

Bangkok/Yangon, May 10 (DPA) The World Food Programme (WFP) Saturday resumed flying emergency supplies into cyclone-devastated Myanmar despite an ongoing dispute with the country’s junta over how the aid will be distributed. “Given the humanitarian crisis, we felt the need to continue the supplies,” said Marcus Prior, a spokesman for the WFP in Bangkok.

On Friday, Myanmar authorities at Yangon International Airport refused to hand over several tonnes of high-energy biscuits to WFP officials in Myanmar for distribution to hundreds of thousands of people desperately in need of food as a result of Cyclone Nargis.

“My understanding is that basically they wanted to distribute the food themselves,” Prior told DPA.

While the WFP hashes out terms with Myanmar’s military regime by which the emergency supplies may be released, the agency has allowed another three air shipments of supplies to Yangon, scheduled to arrive Saturday and Sunday.

The WFP generally tries to distribute disaster relief through its own personnel, but has made exceptions in the past in such countries as Ethiopia and North Korea.

“There is flexibility but for our credibility we need to be accountable to our donors,” said Prior. “We need to provide an assurance that the food gets to the people in need.”

Myanmar’s rulers also have their credibility at stake. The junta held a referendum Saturday on a new constitution designed to cement their political dominance over future elected governments.

The cyclone, which may have killed as many as 100,000 people and left up to 1.9 million in need of emergency aid, has come at an awkward time for the regime.

The country’s 400,000-strong military has been given the double task of monitoring the referendum Saturday while at the same time taking the lead in the distribution of emergency aid.

Over the past week, state-controlled newspapers and TV have highlighted pictures of military men passing out emergency supplies to the people affected by the cyclone, including, oddly, some shots showing officers handing out VCD and DVD players to the needy.

The publicity stunt clashes with the reality. Recipients of government handouts have complained of the small quantities and poor quality.

But in Myanmar’s media-controlled environment most people are unaware of the international furore over the junta’s delay tactics in granting visas to disaster relief experts from the UN and other aid organisations, which is likely to lead to unnecessary additional deaths to hunger and disease.

International aid organisations warned Friday that diphtheria, cholera and malaria could spread in an epidemic of “apocalyptic proportions” if medical, food, water and other types of aid are not allowed to land, along with trained personnel to administer the support.

In its latest announcements, the government has confirmed 23,335 deaths and some 37,019 missing. UN officials Friday estimated the death toll will climb to 63,000 to 100,000 based on reports from 18 aid organisations working in 55 devastated Myanmar townships.

While aid is trickling into the Irrawaddy delta, many people have apparently survived on Buddhist charity this week.

In Labutta, for instance, the population has doubled as refugees seek shelter and food in the relatively large city.

“There is now some aid coming in but many people are relying on the charity of the Burmese families who are residents in Labutta,” said Heinke Veit, a director for the European Commission Humanitarian aid Office (ECHO).

Veit and sources at Unicef denied reports that cases of cholera had already been detected in the delta area.

“The chief of health operations for Unicef in Yangon said there is no evidence of cholera or typhoid yet, although it is a concern,” said Shantha Bloemen, a spokesperson for Unicef in Bangkok.

The International Federation of the Red Cross (IFRC) in Geneva said humanitarian aid had reached around 220,000 people, despite logistical difficulties.

The UN said it had received pledges of $77 million out of the total of $187 million that it has asked for to fund international relief efforts.

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