International aid groups reacted cautiously yesterday to the announcement that Myanmar would allow all foreign relief workers into the country, stressing that details on the ground were still unclear.
While they welcomed the news following talks between junta leader Senior General Than Shwe and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, the groups said that the relief effort needed more than simply foreigners flying in to the main city Yangon.
“The important issue is whether we can leave Yangon or not,” Paul Risley, spokesman for the World Food Programme, said in Thailand.
The secretive junta has all but sealed off the southern Irrawaddy Delta hardest hit by the storm on May 2 and May 3, which left at least 133,000 people dead or missing and approximately 2.5 million in dire need of immediate aid.
Relief organizations have said that outside experts are needed to oversee complicated disaster management operations and that, until now, mostly local staff have been let into the disaster zone.
“We still have to clarify what this means — who can get in, who can go where,” John Sparrow of the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies said.
“Does it mean that the people we have standing by can enter the country? Does it mean we can gear up and go full throttle?” Sparrow said. “It isn’t clear right now.”
“We’re cautiously optimistic, but we have to see how it works in practical terms,” said James East, spokesman for World Vision — one of dozens of aid groups whose work has been restricted by the junta.
“The debate for the last couple of weeks has been about politics and the politics of humanitarian aid,” East said. “Hopefully we’ve moved beyond that to say: ‘Let’s just help the people.”
Making the first visit to Myanmar by a UN secretary general in more than four decades, Ban held talks with Than Shwe and later told reporters that he had agreed to let in all foreign aid workers.
“He has agreed to allow all aid workers, regardless of nationalities,” the UN chief said.
Asked if he thought it was a major breakthrough in the three-week stand off, Ban said: “Yes, I think so.”
The international aid organization CARE said the announcement “could be a turning point in the aid response.”
“CARE has several emergency experts ready to deploy to Myanmar to provide their assistance to the people in need,” CARE’s Myanmar country director Brian Agland said in a press statement.
Rebecca Gustafson, a spokeswoman with the US government’s relief arm said the news sounded positive, but wanted to know more.
“Obviously it sounds like great news. We just want to know what it means,” she said.
The US and France have naval vessels in nearby waters laden with relief supplies, but Myanmar has refused to let them in — and it was not immediately clear if that situation would change.