(AFP) – May 9, 2008
YANGON (AFP) — The UN food agency on Friday suspended all aid flights into Myanmar over "unacceptable" restrictions by the junta, which has refused to allow foreign relief workers to help desperate cyclone survivors.
The World Food Programme's decision cast new doubt on the regime's claim to be doing all it can to save the 1.5 million people at risk of starvation and disease after last week's devastating storm.
The situation on the ground is one of horror almost beyond imagining -- with starving survivors picking for food in waterways littered with the bodies of the dead -- and aid groups agree time is running out.
But the military, deeply suspicious of any outside influence that could dilute the tight control it has kept on the nation for 46 years, insists that it will welcome supplies from abroad, but must distribute them itself.
"WFP is suspending the flights," said Chris Kaye, the World Food Programme's director in Myanmar. "The restrictions on us are unacceptable."
"We have to find a way to resolve the problem as soon as possible," he told AFP.
Kaye said two aid flights had arrived in the country's main city of Yangon but that their cargo had not been unloaded. He did not specify what restrictions the government imposed.
The impasse came shortly after the junta, which has a long history of thumbing its nose at the international community, announced in the state-run press that it was "not ready" to allow foreign experts in.
"The international community can best help the victims by donating emergency provisions such as medical supplies, food clothes, electricity generators, and materials from emergency shelters with financial assistance," it said.
"Myanmar will wholeheartedly welcome such course of actions. The donors and the international community can be assured that Myanmar is doing its best."
Countless masses are suffering in the country's waterlogged southern delta, where huge swathes of terrain remain under water since Cyclone Nargis struck last Saturday, and entire villages were washed or blown away.
"I am angry with the government," said Dowla Shwe, a single mother with five children who said her house was one of the many that simply vanished when the powerful storm tore through her village.
She said the military had brought no aid or food -- and that she feared her children would now starve to death.
"If they can't help," she said, "why not allow foreigners to come and help us?"
Aid groups have repeatedly said that foreign experts who specialise in moving aid through disaster zones and assessing which regions need help first are essential to keep more lives from being lost in the tragedy.
Compounding the disaster, the worst-hit area was the major -growing region, wiping out the main local food source until the government is able to deliver supplies.
The United Nations estimates that 1.5 million people have been affected by the disaster and, as each hour passes without clean water and food they are at ever greater risk of starvation and disease.
"The situation is getting critical," said Noeleen Heyzer, the top UN official for Asia.
"There is only a small window of opportunity if we are to avert the spread of diseases that could multiply the already tragic number of casualties."
Rotting bodies of people and animals are piled up in many places across the remote southern Irrawaddy delta.
Critics of the regime have warned relief organisations that if they do not supervise the aid supplies handed over, they may be snatched by the generals and never reach the victims in Myanmar, one of the world's poorest nations.
Despite the catastrophe, however, the generals insist they will hold a constitutional referendum on Saturday, brushing off criticism they are ignoring the plight of victims while devoting resources to the vote.
Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi's party said they should delay the vote, and that it is only intended to tighten the rule of the military that blocked her election win in 1990 -- and have detained her most of the time since.
The extent of the catastrophe unleashed by the cyclone has put the regime under intense pressure to postpone the vote and open up the country, where only a few outside aid groups are allowed to operate under strict controls.
The regime says the death toll is almost 23,000 with another 42,000 missing. The United States says the toll could be around 100,000.
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