Sat, May 10, 2008 - Page 1 News List

Myanmar blocks food aid, rejects relief workers

AGENCIES , YANGON, MYANMAR, AND BANGKOK

Myanmar’s junta impounded two UN food aid shipments at Yangon airport yesterday, officials said, triggering more outrage at the military government’s refusal to accept a major international relief operation.

“We’re going to have to shut down our very small airlift operation until we get guarantees from the authorities,” a furious World Food Programme regional director Tony Banbury told CNN.

The two shipments, 38 tonnes of high-energy biscuits, were enough to feed 95,000 people — a tiny fraction of the estimated 1.5 million destitute survivors of Cyclone Nargis, which ripped into the Southeast Asian nation six days ago.

“It should be on trucks headed to the victims. You’ve seen the conditions they are in. That food is now sitting on a tarmac doing no good,” Banbury said.

The generals are adamant that only they will distribute the emergency aid that is arriving after the worst cyclone to hit Asia since 1991, when 143,000 people were killed in Bangladesh.

Thai Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej had to cancel a planned trip to Myanmar this weekend to ask the junta to open their doors just hours after he said he would go.

“After they said today they would not welcome foreign staff, there is no point in me going there,” Samak said.

In a statement in the official media after Myanmar turned back a team of Qatari rescue workers coming in on an aid flight this week, the foreign ministry said Myanmar would accept “relief in cash and kind” but not foreign aid workers.

“Myanmar is not in a position to receive rescue and information teams from foreign countries at the moment,” the statement said. “But at present Myanmar is giving priority to receiving relief aid and distributing it to the storm-hit regions.

The junta’s refusal to let in foreign aid workers has not stopped donors from opening their wallets.

The Gates Foundation donated US$3 million for relief efforts in Myanmar and will provide software to help reunite family members separated in the cyclone, Gates, the Microsoft chairman, said yesterday.

The funds were sent to aid agencies Mercy Corps, Worldvision and Care “so they can go in there and help as quickly as possible,” Gates said.

Gates’ donation is about as much as the total money pledged by the US government — US$3.25 million.

However, Myanmar’s military government has refused to allow US relief planes to fly in. It also refuses to give visas to UN experts who want to assess the damage and manage logistics.

By Thursday the UN had recorded donations to Myanmar totaling US$25 million from 28 nations, the EU and charities. An additional US$25 million has been pledged by donors.

The figure also jumped yesterday with another US$10 million that Japan promised to give through the United Nations Children’s Fund, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the World Food Programme.

Also see: Editorial: Myanmar’s junta hits a new low

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