Archive for Sunday, May 18, 2008

World faces limits to getting critical aid into Myanmar

A young survivor of Cyclone Nargis watches as her companion receives free clothing donated by local donors at a monastery Saturday in the outskirts of Yangon, Myanmar.

A young survivor of Cyclone Nargis watches as her companion receives free clothing donated by local donors at a monastery Saturday in the outskirts of Yangon, Myanmar.

May 18, 2008


— It is a life-or-death question: If millions of people are at risk, is it acceptable to sit on the sidelines and watch an undemocratic and unprepared regime mismanage a crisis?

With the death toll climbing, foreign leaders and international aid organizations are faced with an increasingly urgent need to balance respect for Myanmar's sovereignty with a moral responsibility to help its population.

Just hoping the government in Myanmar, also known as Burma, will do the right thing may not be enough. And though it appears unlikely they will be called in, several military powers are capable of intervening, whether the junta likes it or not.

"We want to do this in a collaborative, cooperative way with the authorities in Burma," said Mark Malloch-Brown, the British minister for Africa, Asia and the United Nations.

But he stressed "a lot of lives are at risk."

"The international community cannot take 'no' for an answer," he said here Thursday. "It's a race against time, and we are not racheting up fast enough."

Options available to foreign powers include unauthorized airdrops, coastal landings or helicopter operations. But considering the junta's current stance, any such moves could potentially spark a military incident.

Authorization of intervention by the United Nations Security Council remains unlikely. China, Myanmar's biggest ally, has veto power and has in the past blocked resolutions against the junta.

Aid slow to get through

Some aid, perhaps just enough for Myanmar's leaders to keep foreign governments from making unauthorized aid drops or boat landings, was getting through two weeks after the deadly cyclone of May 2-3.

Tons of foreign aid including water, blankets, mosquito nets, tarpaulins, medicines and tents have been sent to Myanmar, but its delivery has been slowed down by bottlenecks, poor infrastructure and bureaucratic tangles.

The highest hurdle is political - persuading a fearful and out-of-touch military regime to give up, even temporarily, a bit of its control.

The junta has allowed the U.N. and some other agencies to hand out the aid directly but prohibited their few foreign staff allowed into Myanmar from leaving Yangon, the country's largest city and former capital.

Under intense pressure from Washington and the United Nations, the junta has allowed the U.S. military to ferry in emergency supplies provided by the U.S. Agency for International Development.

After initially agreeing to one flight on Monday, Myanmar's leaders have opened the door to daily flights by Marine and Air Force C-130 cargo planes. As of Saturday, the U.S. military had flown 21 C-130s loaded with about 500,000 pounds of aid into Yangon from their makeshift base in Utapao, Thailand.

Another four flights left Friday from the U.S. military's emergency headquarters at Utapao Air Base, in central Thailand.

"At this time, the needs are so immense, they are so large, that we're taking some risks to hope that we can get the assistance through to the ones who are most in need," said USAID administrator Henrietta Fore. "There is an enormous humanitarian urgency to this effort."

Thai and Indian military missions also have been approved, and British, French and Australian warships were converging on the area.

Help on standby

Still, the U.N. and the international Red Cross say that between 1.6 and 2.5 million people are in urgent need of food, water and shelter. Only 270,000 have been reached so far by the aid groups.

Malloch-Brown estimated that 24 C-130 flights a day would be needed to meet the crisis - far higher than the current level. And, so far, U.S. requests to bring in helicopters, one of the few means of reaching the worst-hit regions, have been denied.

Myanmar's government has less than 40 helicopters, most old and in disrepair, and some 15 transport planes, primarily small jets unable to carry hundreds of tons of supplies.

The lack of motion is all the more visible because of the vast resources that are available to help.

Because of an annual exercise scheduled well before Cyclone Nargis hit, the U.S. has 11,000 troops in and around Thailand, and a Marine ship capable of conducting amphibious landings and long-range helicopter operations is just 30 miles off Myanmar's coast.

The French navy ship Le Mistral was waiting some 13 miles outside Myanmar's territorial waters, hoping to go in and unload its cargo of 1,000 tons of food - enough to feed 100,000 people for 15 days. The aid also includes shelters for 15,000 people.

France's U.N. Ambassador Jean-Maurice Ripert warned Friday that the government's refusal to allow aid to be delivered to people "could lead to a true crime against humanity."

Waiting for now

Frustrated by the inability to use such resources, dozens of U.S. congressmen signed off on a letter to President Bush asking that the United States join any international effort to intervene in Myanmar's stricken Irrawaddy Delta region by bypassing the junta's efforts to interfere with aid.

For the time being, the U.S. military will not send in aid without Myanmar's approval. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Adm. Timothy Keating, head of the U.S. forces in the Pacific, have publicly stated that coercive intervention is not on the plate.

"We're not going to do anything unilaterally," said Lt. Col. Douglas Powell, a spokesman for the U.S. relief effort, dubbed Operation Caring Response.

"Our hope is that they will see we have the means and the capabilities," he said. "We need them to take the next step and allow us to do more."

Aid organizations also expressed doubt that unauthorized air drops would be effective.

"At best aid air-drops can only be a partial solution, at worst they give the illusion that somehow we are addressing this ever worsening humanitarian crisis," said Jane Cocking, a spokeswoman for the British aid group Oxfam. "The biggest risk is that aid airdrops will be a distraction from what is really needed - a highly effective aid operation on the ground."


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