This is the personal blog of London photographer, backpacker, traveller Mark Coughlan. The intention of the blog is communicate updates from my personal website and on my photography projects and travels both in the UK and worldwide. When backpacking the obscure places on earth, this blog will be continually updated with images and thoughts from the road. [Read more about me]

Wednesday, 14 May 2008

Aid Groups Say Myanmar Food Stolen by Military

Local workers for a German aid organization unloaded rice into a warehouse in Yangon on Wednesday. Copyright Getty Images

The latest from Myanmar, from the NY Times
The directors of several relief organizations in Myanmar said Wednesday that some of the international aid arriving into the country for the victims of Cyclone Nargis was being stolen, diverted or warehoused by the country’s army.

The United States military’s Joint Typhoon Warning Center said there was a possibility that “a significant tropical cyclone” — a second big storm — would form within the next 24 hours and head across the Irrawaddy Delta, the region that suffered most from the first storm that struck on May 3.

In Yangon, the main commercial city, winds were already beginning to whip up Wednesday evening, but it was unclear how strong the storm would become.

Thailand’s prime minister, Samak Sundaravej, flew to Yangon on Wednesday to persuade Myanmar’s leaders to allow more foreign aid workers into the country. The members of the military junta told him they were in control of the relief operations and had no need for foreign experts, he told reporters after returning to Bangkok, The Associated Press reported.

The government said there were no outbreaks of disease or starvation among the hundreds of thousands of people affected by the cyclone. In Yangon, Mr. Sundaravej met the prime minister, Lt. Gen. Thein Sein, The A.P. said.

The aid directors in Myanmar declined to be quoted directly on their concerns about the stolen relief supplies for fear of angering the ruling junta and jeopardizing their operations, although Marcel Wagner, country director of the Adventist Development and Relief Agency, confirmed that aid was being diverted by the army. He said the issue would become an increasing problem, although he declined to give further details because of the sensitivity of the situation.

International aid shipments continued to arrive Wednesday, including five new air deliveries of relief supplies from the United States. Western diplomats said their representatives at the airport were making sure the cargo was unloaded efficiently and then trucked to staging areas.

The fate of the supplies after that, however, remained unknown, because the junta has barred all foreigners, including credentialed diplomats and aid workers, from accompanying any donated aid, tracking its distribution or following up on its delivery.

Myanmar state radio reported Wednesday that the death toll from the May 3 cyclone had risen again, to 38,491, Agence France-Presse reported, with 27,838 people still missing. The toll has been increasing daily as more of the missing are identified as dead. The United Nations has estimated that the toll could be more than 60,000.

The International Red Cross estimated Wednesday that the cyclone death toll was between 68,833 and 127,990, according to the A.P.

There were rumors in the capital on Wednesday that special high-energy biscuits donated for distribution in the disaster areas had been replaced by cheaper, off-the-shelf crackers. But Mr. Wagner and the others said they had not heard of high-quality foodstuffs being stolen and replaced by inferior products.

Although aid flights are now regularly seen arriving at the Yangon airport, international rescue teams and disaster-relief experts for the most part are being kept away from the country. A small French rescue team has arrived in Yangon, although it was unclear whether it had received official permission. The government announced that it would allow in 160 relief workers from neighboring countries, including India, China, Bangladesh, and Thailand. But diplomats and representatives of aid missions said that visas for overseas experts were still being denied.

Mr. Wagner said he and his agency’s foreign staff members were now barred from the Irrawaddy Delta, even to areas where the group has ongoing projects dating from before the storm. Fortunately, he said, he has Burmese staff who are permitted come and go through an increasing number of military checkpoints.

The Adventist group specializes in rainwater collection, water filtration and sanitation — just the kinds of expertise most needed now — and Mr. Wagner said outside experts were needed to train local people in the proper use of filters, pumps and hygiene practices.

Reports have been mixed about how much aid was actually getting through to the delta. One longtime relief coordinator in Myanmar said Tuesday that 30 percent of the people in the damaged areas had been reached. But other agencies were encouraged about recent improvements in deliveries, especially those groups with projects and local staff already in place, and the agencies with established working relationships with the government.

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