Myanmar's Leaders Play Politics With Disaster

Despite more than 1 million homeless, Myanmar allows just one U.S. shipment.

January 08, 2009, 1:42 AM

BANGKOK, Thailand, May 9, 2008 — -- After days of refusing U.S. aid, Myanmar's military leaders have agreed to allow one U.S. military airplane to deliver relief supplies to help more than 1 million residents left homeless by Cyclone Nargis, a defense official tells ABC News.

The U.S. military is making plans to send a C-130 filled with relief supplies Monday to Myanmar, the official says. That delivery would come 10 days after the cyclone hammered the country and left up to 70,000 people dead or missing and more than 1 million homeless.

It is unclear whether Myanmar will allow any further U.S. aid into the country.

The United States and United Nations pressured the Myanmar government this week to allow more outside relief supplies and workers. The U.S. military has six C-130 aircraft in neighboring Thailand and two more available in Bangladesh. Many more in Japan also could be made available to fly to Myanmar if necessary, or allowed.

The The United Nations said it would resume aid flights to cyclone-struck Myanmar despite the military government's seizure of food supplies on Friday. The U.N. World Food Program had previously suspended flights into the country after the Myanmar government impounded two aid deliveries.

The government refuses to allow foreign aid workers into the country, and today the WFP said that the government had impounded 38 tons of food aid that had landed in Yangon.

It's "outrageous," Paul Risley, the spokesman for WFP in Bangkok, told ABC News.

The U.N. World Food Programme said in a statement that it had decided to send in two relief flights as planned on Saturday.

Today the Myanmar government broadcast a message to its citizens -- but it was not about the 1.5 million Burmese clinging to life, the victims of Cyclone Nargis who have no food, no water, no place to sleep. It was not about the international aid workers blocked from entering the country, humanitarians who might be the only line of defense against widespread disease that creates a second wave of death and catastrophe.

Instead, the bulletin discussed a countrywide referendum to be held Saturday that critics say is an attempt to entrench the military's power.

The message, delivered on state television, did not even mention the storm that blew into the country Saturday, flooding thousands of square miles of land.

Those who survived the storm are still largely left to fend for themselves.

Their government continues to refuse to allow most foreign aid workers to help them, although the regime said today that it would welcome foreign aid -- as long as it came in without accompanying workers.

That's a proposal that is dead on arrival for international organizations that know Myanmar does not have the capacity to distribute aid on a scale necessary to respond to such widespread calamity.

"It's critical. If we don't get large quantities of relief in time, and the experts who need to come with that aid, there could be a second wave of disaster, and it could be just as serious as the effects of the cyclone itself," Richard Horsey, a spokesman for the U.N. humanitarian relief office, told ABC News.

The United Nations says it has reached 276,000 people in Yangon and the Irrawaddy Delta, the region hardest hit by the cyclone's 120 mph winds. But that is only one out of every seven people who are in desperate need of aid.

"If it takes another few days to reach another 276,000 people, it's going to be too late," Horsey said. "We don't have that much time."

Although there are no reports of disease epidemics, the United Nations now believes that in the worst hit parts of Myanmar as many as one in five children are suffering from diarrhea, a disease that already disproportionately affects Burmese children.

"In a situation like this where you have many people without food and water and you have children not getting care or shelter, the conditions are rife for disease," Shantha Bloemen of UNICEF told ABC News. "Not having any sanitary conditions, having to go to the toilet in the open -- it's extremely dangerous."

And still, the government refuses to allow help into the country, saying today that it is "not in a position to receive rescue and information teams from foreign countries at the moment."

An aid flight from Qatar was turned back at the airport because some of the passengers did not have proper visas, The Associated Press reported.

"At present Myanmar is giving priority to receiving relief aid and distributing them to the storm-hit regions with its own resources," the government said today in a message carried by the official Myanma Ahlin newspaper.

But there are more than 1 million people who need aid to survive and who don't have it, and the government seems more concerned about the referendum.

"It shows how unreasonable and crazy they can be," a shop owner told Reuters in Yangon, the country's largest city, of the decision to hold a vote in Yangon. "They just want to celebrate victory even though the people are suffering."

There is still almost no electricity in Yangon, where 6 million people live.

"We haven't had electricity for a long time," a resident told ABC News, refusing to be identified. "The cyclone gave us a total blackout. … In the middle of the town, we hope to get it in a month."

The referendum and the refusal to admit foreign aid workers are part of a long tradition of the Myanmar government's fear of foreign governments plotting to overthrow the military junta.

The government suspects "that many of the same people who have funded humanitarian activities are also funding opposition activities and dissident activities in the country as well," Thant Myint-U, the author of "The River of Lost Footsteps: Histories of Burma," told ABC News.

"This is also a government that follows a zero risk policy. So if they think at all that something could be aimed at undermining them, and undermining regime security, or national security as they see it, their instinct is to back away."

But they are not backing away from photo-ops.

Today the New Light of Myanmar, a state-run newspaper, featured a picture of the prime minister handing out aid.

The relief he distributed: TVs and DVD players.

The only problem: The area he visited hasn't had electricity since the cyclone arrived.

Reuters wire service contributed to this report.

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