U.N. eyes plan to force Myanmar to accept aid Relief workers wait for visas from military regime 5 days after disaster
MSNBC News Services
updated 35 minutes ago
YANGON, Myanmar - Aid trickled into military-ruled Myanmar for an estimated one million victims of Cyclone Nargis on Wednesday, with the death toll rising to nearly 23,000 and expected to go higher.
With the inundated Irrawaddy delta virtually cut off and frustration growing among aid agencies and governments to deliver supplies, France suggested invoking a U.N. "responsibility to protect" clause without waiting for military approval.
French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner told reporters on Wednesday the idea was being discussed at the United Nations.
State radio and TV, the main official sources for casualties and damage, reported an updated death toll of 22,980 with 42,119 missing and 1,383 injured in Asia's most devastating cyclone since a 1991 storm in Bangladesh that killed 143,000.
Richard Horsey of the United Nations Office of the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs told Reuters in Bangkok the death toll was expected to rise "dramatically." 'Major logistical challenge'
"With all those dead mostly floating in the water at this point you can get some idea of the conditions facing the teams on the ground. It's a major logistical challenge," Horsey said.
Experts say Myanmar's ruling military must overcome their distrust of the outside world and open up to a full-scale international relief operation. Horsey said the government "recognizes this is an unprecedented emergency" that needed international involvement. The United Nations recognized in 2005 the concept of "responsibility to protect" civilians when their governments could or would not do it, even if this meant intervention that violated national sovereignty.
European Parliament president Hans-Geert Poettering urged the junta to give access to international aid and to postpone a controversial constitutional referendum on Saturday.
Thailand, China, India and Indonesia were flying in relief supplies and President Bush and Australia's Prime Minister appealed to the Myanmar government to accept their assistance. Visa delays
Even relief workers of the United Nations, which has a presence in the diplomatically isolated Southeast Asian country, were awaiting visas five days after Cyclone Nargis struck with 120 mph winds.
Internal U.N. documents also revealed Myanmar's government is dragging its feet on giving visas to aid workers who are waiting to help the disaster's survivors.
One of the U.N. documents obtained by The Associated Press says: "Visas are still a problem. It is not clear when it will be sorted out."
The comments were made by U.N. officials during a meeting in Bangkok, Thailand, on Wednesday to coordinate relief efforts.
It said U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon "will contact Myanmar" to arrange a meeting with high-ranking officials on the issue. Long-term implications?
Political analysts and critics of 46 years of military rule say the cyclone may have long-term implications for the junta, which is even more feared and resented since last September's bloody crackdown on Buddhist monk-led protests.
Water purification tablets, plastic sheeting, basic medical kits, bed nets and food were priorities, U.N. officials said.
Most of the victims were swept away by a wall of water from the cyclone that smashed into coastal towns and villages in the rice-growing delta southwest of the biggest city of Yangon.
"We estimate upwards of 1 million people currently in need of shelter and life-saving assistance," Horsey said, adding 1,930 square miles of the delta remained under water.
Hungry crowds of survivors stormed the few shops that opened in the delta on Wednesday. U.N. officials declared the delta a "major disaster". Witnesses said survivors tried desperately to reach dry ground on boats using blankets as sails.
Military helicopters dropped food and water on Wednesday to survivors in the Irrawaddy delta, where entire villages have been washed away, officials said.
State television on Wednesday quoted Yangon official Gen. Tha Aye as reassuring people that the situation was "returning to normal" in certain areas of Karen state that were hit by the cyclone. He was shown thanking volunteers and visiting the village of Naungbo, outside Yangon, where locals were cutting apart downed trees and brush to clear the roads.
But nearby in Yangon, Myanmar's biggest city, cyclone victims faced new challenges as markets doubled the price of rice, charcoal and bottled water. Electricity was restored to a small portion of the city's 6.5 million residents, but most, who rely on electric wells, had no water.
At a morning market in the Yangon suburb of Kyimyindaing, a fish monger shouted to shoppers: "Come, come the fish is very fresh."
But an angry woman snapped back: "Even if the fish is fresh, I have no water to cook it!" Prices double
Vendors sold bottled water at 500 kyat — about 50 cents — a liter, more than double the normal price. A standard 73-pound bag of rice had doubled in price to about $40 — an astronomical price in a country where many scrape by on $2 a day.
The U.N.'s World Food Program said late Tuesday it has begun distributing aid in damaged areas of Yangon, where 800 tons of food had arrived.
But some villages have been almost totally eradicated, and vast rice-growing areas were wiped out by Cyclone Nargis, which hit Myanmar early Saturday, the WFP said.
Images from state TV showed large trees and electricity poles sprawled across roads and roofless houses ringed by large sheets of water in the Irrawaddy River delta, which is regarded as Myanmar's rice bowl.
Buddhist monks and Catholic nuns wielding knives and axes joined Yangon residents Tuesday in clearing roads of ancient, fallen trees that were once the city's pride. Soldiers were out on the streets in large numbers for the first time since the cyclone hit.
Britain said it will contribute up to about $9.8 million in initial relief funds and will send an emergency field team to help with international relief efforts. U.S. offers $3 million
The United States said it was giving $3 million to U.N. agencies to help with their efforts. The European Union will provide $3.1 million.
China is providing $1 million in aid, including relief materials worth $500,000, to help with disaster relief and rehabilitation efforts, a spokesman said.
Indonesia, the country hardest hit by the 2004 Asian tsunami, pledged $1 million in aid on Wednesday.
But the United States and France complained about Myanmar's reluctance to accept direct aid.
President Bush on Tuesday called on Myanmar's military junta to allow the U.S. Navy to help search for the dead and missing. But Myanmar's military, which regularly accuses the United States of trying to subvert the regime, was unlikely to accept U.S. military presence in its territory.
Kouchner said France minimized its aid to about $309,000. He said Myanmar officials are willing to accept aid but insist on distributing it themselves, which he said was "not a good way of doing things."
The cyclone came only a week ahead of a key referendum on a constitution backed by Myanmar's military leaders as an important step forward on their "roadmap to democracy."
State radio also said Saturday's vote would be delayed until May 24 in most of the townships in the Yangon area and seven in the Irrawaddy delta. But it indicated that the balloting would proceed in other areas as scheduled.
The decision drew swift criticism from dissidents and human rights groups who question the credibility of the vote and urged the junta to focus on disaster victims. Military rule
On Wednesday, about 30 Filipino protesters demanded that Myanmar's junta postpone the constitutional referendum and allow the unrestricted entry of international relief.
Myanmar has been under military rule since 1962. Its government has been widely criticized for suppression of pro-democracy parties such as the one led by Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate who has been under house arrest for almost 12 of the past 18 years.
At least 31 people were killed and thousands more were detained when the military cracked down on peaceful protests in September led by Buddhist monks and democracy advocates.