Lee Siew Hua
Tue, May 27, 2008
The Straits Times
Foreign aid groups test the waters

YANGON - FOREIGN aid workers yesterday saddled up for the cyclone-ravaged Irrawaddy delta to see whether army-ruled Myanmar will honour a promise to give them freedom of movement.

'We're going to head out today and test the boundaries,' one official from a major Western relief agency told Reuters in Yangon shortly before leaving for the delta.

Yesterday, reporters who slipped past security checkpoints to enter the delta said immigration officers were still questioning foreigners on main roads into the region.

Also some efforts to deliver aid to the victims hit a snag as France yesterday turned back a ship laden with supplies, citing its shock at the resistance of Yangon's military regime.

The military vessel carrying 1,000 tonnes of aid for the delta was instead sent to Thailand to be handed to the World Food Programme for distribution, the French defence and foreign ministries said in a statement.

'Nothing...can justify the victims of a catastrophe being denied the basic right to the necessary aid,' the statement said late on Sunday.

However, the move did not come as a total surprise as Myanmar's Prime Minister Thein Sein had said only civilian vessels could take part in the aid operation and that they would have to go through Yangon.

Myanmar's leaders have virtually barred foreign aid workers and international agencies from the delta since the storm hit on May 3. But United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon last Friday managed to secure a promise from junta chief Than Shwe that international aid workers will be able 'to freely reach the needy people'.

Mr Richard Horsey, a spokesman for the UN humanitarian operation in Bangkok, said: 'Now, if we can get these experts out, we can start putting in place the water purification machines, warehousing and the other things that we need and this operation can quickly scale up.'

On the roads leading from Yangon to the worst-affected areas in the delta, however, cyclone survivors said they have not heard anything about the world's efforts to increase aid to them - or seen any signs of more government help.

Mr Aye Shwe, 52, lives in a bamboo and thatch hut with his family of eight by the roadside in Pyapon.

'I have no hope that the help will come,' he said. 'We live hand-to-mouth. We have no buffaloes, no padi fields.' The only assistance he has received, he said, came from private citizens.

The UN has estimated that of the 2.4 million people affected by the storm, about 42 per cent had received some kind of emergency assistance. But of the two million people living in the 15 worst-affected townships, only 23 per cent had been reached.

Donors pledged nearly US$50 million (S$68 million) in aid at a landmark conference on Sunday but Western countries said much of the cash would be contingent on access to the delta.

Washington told the Yangon conference it was ready to raise its offer of US$20.5 million in aid if the junta opened up, but added it was 'dismayed' that the generals went ahead with a constitutional referendum in the middle of the disaster.

Myanmar declared victory yesterday for the Constitution, claiming that 93 per cent turned out for the second round of polling on Saturday, with 92.93 per cent endorsing the charter.




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