Burmese Junta Stifling Aid for Cyclone Victims

More than 100,000 people may be dead and millions homeless in Burma - also known as Myanmar - following the devastating cyclone that hit the Southeast Asian country this week. But the military government has made delivering aid difficult. Jeff Wright, a disaster relief specialist with Worldvision; and Tin Thaw, who works with the Burmese-American Buddhist community, give an update on international efforts to provide aid.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and This Is Tell Me More from NPR News. Just ahead, we know about many of the health challenges in the developing world, but one of the most pressing for women is rarely discussed: severe burns. We're going to talk about why this is and why we don't talk about it in just a few minutes. But first, the devastation in Myanmar, also known as Burma. A powerful cyclone struck over the weekend, claiming tens of thousands of lives. The military government, which has been suspicious of foreign aid, finally allowed a plane carrying relief supplies to land today. But U.N. officials are still worried about the lack of food and drinkable water. President Bush said the U.S. stands ready to help.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: We're prepared to move U.S. Navy assets to help find those who have lost their lives. To help find the missing and to help stabilize the situation. But in order to do so, the military junta must allow our disaster assessment teams into the country.

MARTIN: Here to bring us up to date are Geoff Wright, he is a disaster relief specialist with World Vision, and Tin Thaw, he is the vice president of the Burma American Buddhist Association in suburban Washington. He has family in the affected area, including his 98-year-old father-in-law. I welcome you both. Thank you for speaking with us.

Mr. TIN THAW (Vice President, Burma American Buddhist Association): Thank you for having me.

Mr. GEOFF WRIGHT (Disaster Relief Specialist, World Vision): Yes, thank you.

MARTIN: Tin, if I could start with you. May I ask, have you been able to reach any family members? Do you know how they are?

Mr. THAW: Yeah, luckily, last Tuesday morning, I got first contact with my sister, who is 80 years old, and my niece. And yesterday morning, Wednesday morning, I got contact with my father-in-law and his two daughters and one son. And they are all OK without any body injury. But their house was damaged by a falling tree and flying objects hit the roof off of my father-in-law's house, so some part of the house are not livable because water pouring in. So my sister now moved to a motel nearby and they are to live there.

MARTIN: Are there any other - is there any food, any water? How are they actually functioning, day-to-day?

Mr. THAW: Yeah, food and water are very scarce. So also, there is a black market for food and water. You can buy food and water on black market, very pricey though. Bottle of water used to be 100 Kyats local currency, now you have to pay for 800 Kyats (unintelligible) and the same thing with the gasoline. Gasoline used to be only a dollar fifteen, now about 11 dollars per gallon.

MARTIN: Well, I'm thankful that all your family members are safe, your immediate family members. Geoff, can you tell us, has World Vision been able to get any supplies in, or what is the status of your organization and what are you able to do so far?

Mr. WRIGHT: Well, World Vision has been in Myanmar for over 30 years. And during that time, we've managed to build a fairly extensive program inside the country, including nearly 600 employees, most of whom are local, and a warehouse of prepositioned, disaster response supplies. And it's been from that warehouse that we've been able to distribute to date.

To date, that distribution has looked like about 35 metric ton of rice and about 18,000 liters of drinking water that we have been able to distribute within the cyclone zone. Thus far, it's been extremely challenging to get additional material and supply into the country from outside.

MARTIN: So the issue is that you had supplies prepositioned. You were, you know, fortunate in that respect, but replenishing those supplies has been a challenge. And why is that? Is that because the infrastructure to allow supplies to be delivered has also been destroyed, or is it that you're just not getting cooperation from the authorities?

Mr. WRIGHT: Well, I would say it's a bit of both, actually. Yeah, inside the country the infrastructure certainly is a huge challenge, just moving material from point A to point B on the ground inside Myanmar is a monumental challenge. And then in terms of moving things into the country from outside. Yeah, negotiating with that government can be quite difficult, as well.

MARTIN: And what is your most pressing concern at this point, Geoff? What are you most worried about and what do you most want to accomplish?

Mr. WRIGHT: Well, what we most want to accomplish in this very short term is getting people, quite frankly, to survive through the next two weeks. This is a critical time when food supplies have been wiped out, when clean water, water that can be drunk, is not available and during this initial period when infectious and vector-borne diseases are going to rise very quickly. It is quite critical that we are able to get, especially clean water, but also food and shelter into those people.

In the longer term, it will be a matter of cleanup and doing, well, taking measures that can reduce the impact of those vector-borne diseases in the long term.

MARTIN: Then why is that, if you just help me understand, why is the potential for the, sort of, spread of disease so great?

Mr. WRIGHT: The last satellite images that I was able to look at last night indicate that there is an area of about 1,900 square miles that is under water in Myanmar that wasn't prior to the cyclone. OK, this is an area, this is a space the size of the state of Rhode Island, or in Washington state it would be Adams County. It's a huge amount of land that's now under water. It's got a lot of yeah, things in it, and wherever you have standing water, you're going to see a rise in diseases. We have reports of dead animals floating in it, corpses. That's contaminating wells, that's contaminating drinking water. There is just nowhere for it all to go. It can't flow out and it's contaminating everything that's in its path.

MARTIN: Now, Tin, I'm sure that obviously, your main concern is making sure family members are safe. But have they been able to describe what their immediate neighborhood is like or what the immediate area is like?

Mr. THAW: Yeah, the immediate area has a lot of fallen trees and flying debris and street and roads. And there is no government assistance to clean up those things, so people have to do their own job by using their own machetes or something like that. They are cutting down the branches, tree branches, and trying to make - digging out of the trouble. So another thing is, you know, many poor people cannot pay high price of the water and food. So unless the government allow the foreign assistance to come in time quickly...

So far, they allow only very little issue compared to the magnitude of this disaster. So I would like to request the Burmese government to allow more help from the international help, to reach to those needy areas. Especially, like World Vision said, many area cannot reach by land or sea or something like that. The only thing we can reach there by helicopters, so we need helicopters and fresh water and food and also we need tents.

MARTIN: Tents, yes.

Mr. THAW: Our rainy season, monsoon, has just begun in Burma, so there is a lot of rain coming so people need...

MARTIN: I see.

Mr. THAW: Under the roof, you know.

MARTIN: Yes, of course. Geoff Wright, final question to you, very briefly, if you would. I'm sure people listening to our conversation would like to know how they can help. Is there something that people can do to help your organization, if they would like to be helpful to the situation there?

Mr. WRIGHT: Yes, absolutely, there are a number of mechanisms that people can use if they want to contribute to World Vision's work in Myanmar. The best option, the best place to start with would be to visit www.worldvision.org on the Web.

MARTIN: All right. Geoff Wright is a disaster relief specialist with World Vision, he joined us from KPLU in Seattle. And Tin Thaw the vice president of the Burma American Buddhist Association in Ashburn, Virginian. He was on the phone. Gentlemen, I thank you both.

Mr. THAW: Thank you.

Mr. WRIGHT: Thank you.

MARTIN: And Tin Thaw, my very best to your family and I hope they remain well.

Mr. THAW: Thank you so much.

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