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Will Burma (Myanmar) let world in for aid?

The junta sought international assistance quickly but has been slow to give visas to foreign aid workers.

By David MonteroCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / May 7, 2008

Relief: A Thai military plane Tuesday was the first to bring aid into Burma since the cyclone.

Vorasit satienlerk/Reuters

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Phnom Penh, Cambodia

The military government in Burma (Myanmar) is receiving an outpouring of emergency aid offers from the international community, as the death toll from Saturday's cyclone continues to soar. While some foreign aid workers were told they could enter the country to assess needs and distribute supplies, as of Tuesday – three days after the disaster hit – they were still awaiting visas. The delay raises questions as to how willing the hermit regime is to facilitate relief in the crucial, early stages of this humanitarian emergency.

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"We don't know the extent of the damage. We're having trouble contacting our people," says Chris Lom, a spokesman for the UN International Organization on Migration (IOM) in Thailand.

Meanwhile, the regime faced mounting criticism for its alleged neglect in preparing for the disaster. With Burma's tightly controlled state media offering scant details, it was unclear how the government was directing its emergency response.

But the Burmese Army, which mobilized quickly and harshly to suppress democratic protests last September, has been described as slow to offer assistance now by some observers, while state authorities are accused of failing to provide shelter information despite knowing that cyclone Nargis would set down Saturday with destructive force.

"The regime has lost a golden opportunity to send the soldiers as soon as the storm stopped to win the heart and soul of people," a retired civil servant told Reuters. "But where are the soldiers and police? They were very quick and aggressive when there were protests in the streets last year," he said.

State officials confirmed on Tuesday night that 22,000 people were killed by the cyclone, with 41,000 missing, a drastic increase that made the disaster the worst to hit Asia since the 2004 tsunami, which left some 230,000 people dead.

Other reports suggested that Saturday's death toll would rise significantly. Already, it has escalated quickly: from 351 on Saturday, to 4,000 on Monday morning, to 10,000 that night. By Tuesday morning, state-run television stated that 10,000 people alone had been killed in the town of Bogalay.

Speaking from a phone on the Thai-Burmese border Tuesday, Nyo Myint, of the National League for Democracy party led by Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, says the death toll, calculated by reports from party sources across southern Burma, is more than 100,000.

International relief agencies reported that, with phone and Internet lines down and roads washed away, merely assessing the damage would be difficult at best, let alone dispensing aid.

Burma’s $10 million in aid

Cyclone Nargin’s path of destruction through the Irrawaddy Delta has prompted offers of outside help for the people of Burma (Myanmar).
Governments and relief agencies around the world have promised aid and technical support, including the following:
• United Nations has assembled a five-member UN Disaster Assessment and Coordination team in Bangkok, Thailand.
• International Red Cross relief workers are distributing drinking water, clothing, food, plastic tarpaulins, and hygiene kits.
• The International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies’ emergency disaster fund released about $189,000.
• Myanmar Red Cross The government said it would allocate 5 billion kyats ($4.5 million) for relief and resettlement work. The organization is also distributing insecticide-treated bed nets to help prevent malaria.
• The American Red Cross: It has pledged $100,000 in funds and supplies.
• World Vision, Australia: The Christian relief group pledged A$3 million ($2.8 million) for the first month of relief operations in Myanmar. About 25 health specialists are being sent to boost efforts of 600 permanent staff.

State contributions
• France €200,000 ($292,000) in aid
• Spain €500,000 ($731,000) to the World Food Program for Myanmar.
• Indonesia: $1 million, in additional to send food, medicine, and other aid.
• U.S. $250,000 in aid
Source: Reuters