Myanmar regime accused of hoarding aid

May 13, 2008 7:36:47 AM PDT
The United Nations said Tuesday that only a tiny portion of international aid needed for Myanmar's cyclone victims is making it into the country, amid reports that the military regime is hoarding good-quality foreign aid for itself and doling out rotten food. The country's isolated military regime has agreed to accept relief shipments from the U.N. and foreign countries, but has largely refused entry to aidworkers who might distribute the aid.

Two U.S. planes have already delivered aid to the country, and, in an apparent broadening of the initial agreement, the government seemed willing to allow future shipments.

But logistical bottlenecks, poor infrastructure and the junta's restrictions have delayed the distribution of the aid, which is piling up at the airport in Yangon.

"There is obviously still a lot of frustration that this aid effort hasn't picked up pace" 10 days after the cyclone hit, said Richard Horsey, the spokesman of the U.N. humanitarian operation in Bangkok, Thailand.

Cyclone Nargis devastated the country's Irrawaddy delta on May 3, leaving about 62,000 people dead or missing, according to the government count. The U.N. has suggested the death toll is likely to be more than 100,000.

With their homes washed away and large tracts of land under water, some 2 million survivors - mostly poor rice farmers - are living in abject misery, facing disease and starvation.

The U.N. said the World Food Program is only getting in 20 percent of the food needed.

"That is a characterization of the program as a whole. We are not reaching enough people quickly enough," Horsey told The Associated Press.

The survivors are packed into Buddhist monasteries or camped in the open, drinking dirty water contaminated by dead bodies and animal carcasses. Food and medicines are scarce.

The military - which has ruled the country with an iron fist since 1962 - has taken control of most aid sent by other countries including the United States.

The regime told a U.S. military commander who delivered the first American shipment on Monday that basic needs of the storm victims are being fulfilled and "skillful humanitarian workers are not necessary."

But the junta's words and actions have only served to back up complaints that the military is appropriating the aid for itself. A longtime foreign resident in Yangon told the AP in Bangkok that angry government officials have complained to him about the misappropriation of the aid by the military.

He said the officials told him that quantities of the high-energy biscuits rushed into Myanmar by the WFP on its first flights were sent to a military warehouse.

They were exchanged by what the officials said were "tasteless and low quality" biscuits produced by the Industry Ministry to be handed out to cyclone victims, the foreign resident said.

He spoke on condition of anonymity because revealing his identity would jeopardize his safety.

He said it was not known what's happening to the high quality food - whether it is sold on the black market or consumed by the military.

The government did not immediately respond to requests for comment. But the claim appeared to be backed up on the ground.

CARE Australia's country director in Myanmar, Brian Agland, said members of his local staff brought back some of the rotting rice that's being distributed in the delta.

"I have a small sample in my pocket, and it's some of the poorest quality rice we've seen," he said. "It's affected by salt water and it's very old."

It's unclear whether the rice, which is dark gray in color and consists of very small grains, is coming from the government or from mills in the area or warehouses hit by the cyclone.

"We were using food from the World Food Program, which is very high quality," Agland said by telephone from Yangon. "Certainly, we are concerned that (poor quality rice) is being distributed. The level of nutrition is very low."

The foreign resident also said that several businessmen have been told to make "donations" in cash of a minimum of $1,800 to the government to aid cyclone victims. Companies approached include jade mining concerns in Hpakant, restaurants and construction companies in Yangon, he said.

The authoritarian junta has barred nearly all foreigners experienced in managing such catastrophes from going to the delta - an area west of Yangon - and is expelling those who have managed to go in.

Jean-Sebastien Matte, an emergency coordinator with Medecins Sans Frontieres, said his foreign staff have repeatedly been forced to return to Yangon from the delta.

"We can go for two days and then we have to come back," he said. "We're able to do 100 or 200 consultations a day but we should be doing 1,000."

Armed police checkpoints were set up outside Yangon on the roads to the delta, and all foreigners were being sent back by policemen who took down their names and passport numbers.

"No foreigners allowed," a policeman said Tuesday after waving a car back.

After its first aid delivery on Monday, the United States sent in one more cargo plane Tuesday with 19,900 pounds of blankets, water and mosquito netting. A third flight was to take in a 24,750-pound load.

U.S. Marine Lt. Col. Douglas Powell said the situation remains fluid, but flights were expected to continue after Tuesday, which appears to broaden the original agreement for three flights on Monday and Tuesday.

Yangon was pounded by heavy rain Monday and more downpours were expected throughout the week, further hindering aid deliveries.

But for many, the rainwater was the only source of clean drinking water.