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Myanmar refuses to accept aid boat as refugees wait

Sunday, May 18, 2008

YANGON, Myanmar -- Myanmar's junta kept a French navy ship laden with aid waiting outside its maritime border Saturday, and showed off neatly laid out state relief camps to diplomats.

The stage-managed tour appeared aimed at countering global criticism of the junta's failure to provide for survivors of Cyclone Nargis, which left at least 134,000 people dead or missing.

The junta flew 60 diplomats and U.N. officials in helicopters to three places in the Irrawaddy delta where camps, aid and survivors were put on display. The diplomats were not swayed.

"It was a show," Shari Villarosa, the top U.S. diplomat in Myanmar, said by telephone after returning to Yangon. "That's what they wanted us to see."

Meanwhile, a French navy ship that arrived Saturday off Myanmar's shores loaded with food, medication and fresh water was given the now familiar red light, a response that France's U.N. ambassador, Jean-Maurice Ripert, called "nonsense."

"We have small boats which could allow us to go through the delta to most of the regions where no one has accessed yet," he said a day earlier at U.N. headquarters. "We have small helicopters to drop food, and we have doctors."

The USS Essex, an amphibious assault ship, and its battle group have been waiting to join in the relief effort as well. U.S. Marine flights from their makeshift headquarters in Utapao, Thailand, continued Saturday -- bringing the total to 500,000 pounds of aid delivered -- but negotiations to allow helicopters to fly directly to the disaster zone were stalled.

Britain's prime minister accused authorities in Myanmar of behaving inhumanely by preventing foreign aid from reaching victims, and said the country's regime cares more about its own survival than the welfare of its people.

"This is inhuman," Gordon Brown told the British Broadcasting Corp. in his strongest criticism yet of Myanmar's authoritarian government.

Brown said a natural disaster "is being made into a man-made catastrophe by the negligence, the neglect and the inhuman treatment of the Burmese people by a regime that is failing to act and to allow the international community to do what it wants to do."

Britain's Ministry of Defense said it had dispatched a Royal Navy frigate to the area "as a contingency." The HMS Westminster broke away from an exercise with the French and Indian navies, a ministry spokesman said, speaking anonymously in line with military policy.

The spokesman said the ship carried a crew of 98 and was equipped with a communications facility, a Merlin helicopter, two sea boats, a doctor and a paramedic. The spokesman added that crew members are all trained in disaster relief.

Myanmar's media, which has repeatedly broadcast footage of generals reassuring refugees calmly sitting in clean tents, announced Friday that the death toll from Cyclone Nargis had nearly doubled to 78,000 with about 56,000 missing.

Aid groups say even those estimates are low.

According to the international Red Cross, the death toll alone is probably about 128,000, with many more deaths possible from disease and starvation unless help gets quickly to some 2.5 million survivors of the disaster.

But seeing that help gets to the victims is not the first priority of Myanmar's rulers. The military, which took power in a 1962 coup, says all aid must be delivered to the government for distribution and has barred foreigners from leaving Yangon, putting up a security cordon around the country's main city.

Myanmar has been slightly more open to aid from its neighbors.

It has accepted Thai and Indian medical teams, which arrived in Yangon on Saturday. The 32-member Thai team was expected to travel to the delta in the coming days, said Dr. Surachet Satitniramai, director of Thailand's National Medical Emergency Services Institute.

The Indian team consists of 50 doctors and paramedics from the Army Medical Corp., said Indian Air Force spokesman Wing Cmdr. Manish Gandhi. He could not immediately say if they will be allowed to go to the delta.

With the monsoon season coming, Myanmar was bracing for a long haul ahead.

Though patches of hot sun broke through Saturday, heavy rains since the cyclone have hampered relief efforts. Despite the overabundance of water in the flooded delta, shortages of water that is fresh enough to drink grew more severe by the day.

Access to regular supplies of safe drinking water and proper sanitation is essential for preventing waterborne diseases like cholera. Malaria and dengue fever outbreaks also will be a major concern in the coming weeks after mosquitoes have time to breed in the stagnant water.

In one town, tired and hungry refugees stood in the baking sun beside flooded rice paddies, demolished monasteries and thatched huts awaiting food and water. With the arrival of each vehicle carrying precious supplies, they jumped with excitement and surged ahead to get a share.

They were among the lucky ones -- aid was actually coming.

"The further you go, the worse the situation," said an overwhelmed doctor in the town of Twante, just southwest of the country's largest city, Yangon, helping a locally organized relief effort there.

"Near Yangon, people are getting a lot of help and it's still bad," said the doctor, who refused to give her name for fear of being punished by the regime. "In the remote delta villages, we don't even want to imagine."


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