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by Marwaan Macan-Markar

Burma Not Allowing Monks, Volunteers, to Help Cyclone Survivors

(IPS) -- UN officials are giving the impression that the world body is making headway in helping the millions of survivors in Burma's cyclone-hit Irrawaddy Delta.

Yet, according to the UN, so far more than one million survivors have not been reached. Cyclone Nargis killed 130,000 to possibly 300,000 people and affected 2.5 million to 5.5 million people.

Since the Cyclone Nargis struck on May 3 the military regime in Burma, or Myanmar, has issued 180 visas for UN staffers to enter the Southeast Asian country to help in the relief efforts, according to the UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

"There has been some progress," Amanda Pitt, spokesperson for OCHA, said at a press conference this week in the Thai capital. "But international staff need more sustained access to the delta."

Others, such as Paul Risley, spokesperson for the World Food Program's (WFP) Asia division, confirmed that more food is getting into the affected part of the delta. "The WFP has dispatched 11,046 tons of food to Myanmar, of which 60 percent has reached the people." In addition, a hurdle that had been placed by the Burmese junta -- preventing the UN food relief agency's helicopters ferrying supplies -- has finally been surmounted. "There are 10 WFP helicopters working in Myanmar. One helicopter does three or four rotations," according to Risley.

But away from the weekly press conferences that offer a progress report on the UN's work in the cyclone-hit areas, a different face of the world body emerges. It is one of frustration at the bureaucratic roadblocks placed in the way of the UN's humanitarian mission.

"It could be described as red tape in the day-to-day operations under normal circumstances. But in the post-cyclone environment, that red tape becomes a roadblock in providing aid to people in desperate need," one disgruntled UN official told IPS on condition of anonymity. "It is intolerable, creating days of unnecessary delays."

This confirms a departure from the commitment Senior General Than Shwe, the junta's strongman, made to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon -- to permit the world body greater access to the delta.

"I have been much encouraged by my discussions with Myanmar's authorities in recent days," Ban said at a press conference in Bangkok soon after he finished his first official visit to Burma in late May. "Senior General Than Shwe agreed to allow all international aid workers to operate freely and without hindrance."

Yet, the days since that May 25 disclosure have been anything but what was promized. It appears the junta intends to grind the on-going international humanitarian mission down to an even slower pace. A high-level meeting held in the country Tuesday between the junta's representatives and UN officials saw new rules of operation released.

Now the UN and international humanitarian agencies involved in cyclone relief have to get clearance from two to three additional ministries. Among the new ministries roped in to fortify the junta's bureaucratic wall is the Commerce Ministry.

These additional hindrances could not have come at a worst time for the desperate survivors -- already a waterlogged area the size of Austria is being battered by the first wave of the seasonal monsoon rains.

Among those who will be doubly burdened by the delays in aid delivery are pregnant women in the delta, raising the fear of more cases of maternal mortality.

"Many pregnant women have no place to go for delivery," says William Ryan, spokesperson for the UN Population Fund (UNFPA). "There are nearly 35,000 women pregnant in the delta, and at least 100 give birth daily."

"These women now have insufficient access to skilled birth attendants, they face more delays in getting to hospitals or health facilities and they cannot be sure how long it will be before they are treated even when they get to such a facility," Ryan said in an interview. "The facilities have been damaged and access has become more difficult."

"On top of that, their health could have been compromized due to lack of good nutrition in the past few weeks and the trauma of escaping the cyclone," he added. "All these will add to the risk when giving birth."

Even before the cyclone, Burma's maternal mortality rates were grim, some 380 women dying per 100,000 births. "Globally speaking, that is a very high figure," says Ryan. "One in seven deliveries can be life-threatening if there are no health facilities."

UNFPA is hoping that a clearer picture of the number of pregnant women who need help will emerge once an assessment of the affected area is completed later this month.

The junta, in a concession to international pressure to help the cyclone survivors, has permitted a team of 250 people -- of which 50 are from the UN -- to spend 10 days visiting the entire affected area to gauge the extent of damage in order to shape a coordinated relief and reconstruction response.

This arrangement also includes the participation of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), a 10-member regional bloc, of which Burma is a member. ASEAN, the UN and representatives from the junta are part of a tripartite group formed to direct the post-cyclone aid effort.

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Albion Monitor   June 12, 2008   (

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