(AFP) – May 8, 2008
YANGON (AFP) — More than one million homeless in Myanmar were battling to stave off disease and hunger Thursday, but the military government maintained tight limits on foreign assistance six days after a massive cyclone.
With death toll estimates near 100,000 and the clock ticking for those who survived, Myanmar's junta -- long suspicious of the outside world -- came under new pressure to fully open up to help from abroad.
Aid has only trickling in despite warnings that specialists were needed to deliver food and water into disaster zones strewn with rotting bodies, and it was unclear if the regime had yet given visas to foreign aid staff.
The United Nations Security Council was divided on how to respond to the emergency, with Western members urging strong pressure on Myanmar to allow foreign relief aid while China warned against politicising the issue.
Earlier, UN humanitarian chief John Holmes said he was "disappointed" with Myanmar over its failure to facilitate entry to more foreign relief workers and supplies to cope with the disaster.
He said UN chief Ban Ki-moon was trying to talk to junta leader Than Shwe to urge him "strongly to facilitate access" for foreign relief workers.
And Ban himself urged the regime to focus on mobilising resources rather than on the upcoming constitutional referendum.
Amid mounting international pressure on the junta, The White House urged Myanmar to allow US disaster relief into the country while a State Department official said the US was mulling dropping food aid, hinting it may go ahead without the junta's approval.
But US Defence Secretary Robert Gates later said although the US military was positioning ships and helicopters to move relief supplies quickly into Myanmar, it would not do so until it was given the go-ahead by the Myanmar government.
There are fears that many of those who survived the first tragedy may succumb to a second, falling prey to hunger and disease while the supplies that might save them languish nearby with no way -- or no permission -- to get in.
Aid groups said the country needs hundreds of planeloads of supplies and equipment to cope with Cyclone Nargis, which barrelled into Myanmar overnight Friday, unleashing one of the worst natural disasters in history.
They said help was slowly arriving, but not enough -- and not quickly enough -- for most of those in the stricken southwest Irrawaddy delta who saw their villages ripped apart or washed away.
The UN said four disaster experts received permission to travel to Myanmar, but there was no immediate word for hundreds of others awaiting a green light from the military, which has ruled the former Burma since 1962.
Later Thursday, Britain's UN Ambassador John Sawers said London looked to the Myanmar regime "to take the necessary measures to allow humanitarian relief in."
But Chinese deputy ambassador Liu Zhenmin said the issue involved a natural disaster that should be handled by competent UN agencies and not by the Security Council, which is tasked with handling threats to international peace and security.
In a rare break from its policy of non-interference in its members' affairs, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) pressed the junta to soften its stance, as did China, Myanmar's most powerful ally.
It is not known if all the remote delta settlements have been reached by the government. But with the devastation widespread, and apparently thousands of dead rotting on the ground, the regime upped the official death toll by 17.
State-run television gave the latest figures as 22,997 dead, 1,430 injured and 42,119 missing.
But a military official in the delta township of Labutta estimated 80,000 dead there alone, and many families there told an AFP reporter most of their relatives had been killed.
"Houses collapsed, buildings collapsed, and people were swept away," one man said. "I only survived by hanging on to a big tree."
Around 5,000 square kilometres (1,930 square miles) remain underwater, and more than a million homeless need emergency relief, a UN spokesman said.
Shari Villarosa, US charge d'affaires in Myanmar's main city Yangon, said there could be more than 100,000 dead in the Irrawaddy delta, where 95 percent of buildings were reported to have disappeared.
Food prices in Myanmar, already one of the world's most impoverished nations, have soared. A bag of rice now costs 40,000 kyats (35 dollars) in the commercial hub Yangon, up from 25,000 last week.
Despite the crisis, the government said it plans to go ahead Saturday with a constitutional referendum as part of a slow-moving process to restore democracy -- a process critics say is only intended to cement the army's grip on power.
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