Myanmar's military rulers yesterday rejected growing international pressure to accept aid workers, insisting against all the evidence that it had the emergency cyclone relief effort under control.
Even as US President George W. Bush and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon voiced their fury at the country’s generals, and aid agencies again warned that time was running out, the regime remained defiant about letting in outsiders.
"The nation does not need skilled relief workers yet," Vice Admiral Soe Thein said in the New Light of Myanmar newspaper, a mouthpiece for the military, which has ruled the nation with an iron grip for nearly half a century.
He said the needs of the people following the storm, which has left around 62,000 dead or missing since ripping through the southern Irrawaddy Delta on May 2, "have been fulfilled to an extent."
But aid agencies tell a starkly different story, warning that as every day passes without sufficient food, water and shelter, as many as 2 million people are at risk of adding to the death toll.
Just hours after the US sent its first aid plane into the country since the tragedy -- following days of negotiations -- Bush said the world should "be angry and condemn" the junta.
"Either they are isolated or callous," he said. "There’s no telling how many people have lost their lives as a result of the slow response."
The US has long been one of the most vocal critics of the regime, repeatedly tightening sanctions on Myanmar over its refusal to shift towards democracy or release opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest.
But Ban also took aim at the junta -- using unusually strong language for a UN chief -- to insist that outside aid experts be allowed in immediately to help direct the fumbling relief effort.
"I want to register my deep concern and immense frustration on the unacceptably slow response to this grave humanitarian crisis," Ban told a news conference at UN headquarters in New York.
"We are at a critical point. Unless more aid gets into the country very quickly, we face an outbreak of infectious diseases that could dwarf today’s current crisis," he said. "I therefore call in the most strenuous terms on the government of Myanmar to put its people’s lives first. It must do all it can to prevent this disaster from becoming even more serious."
The country has welcomed donations of aid, even from the US, which sent in its first planeload of supplies on Monday and planned for two more military transporters to follow yesterday.
But the generals remain deeply suspicious of the outside world and fearful of any outside influence that could weaken their control on every aspect of life in the nation, formerly known as Burma.
Aid groups insist that only specialists with long experience of disaster zones can ensure that the neediest get the aid they need -- and navigate that aid through scenes of almost total destruction.
Eleven days after the disaster struck, thousands of hungry people were still lining the roads on the route between the main city Yangon and the low-lying delta that bore the brunt of Cyclone Nargis, begging for food and water.
The storm churned up huge waves that turned the delta rice paddies into a saltwater swamp and drowned untold numbers of people and animals -- many of whose corpses are still rotting in the tropical heat.