Myanmar Officials Reject Calls to Let In Aid Workers

Myanmar officials said it will accept foreign aid but not foreign aid workers. The statement follows pressure from the United Nations to speed up the issuing of visas for foreign relief experts.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

Nearly a week after a devastating cyclone hit Myanmar, the country remains in disarray. Today a U.N. official is saying that the World Food Program is suspending aid to the country because Myanmar has seized supplies have been flown in, and it continues to refuse to grant permission to U.S. aid flights.

An NPR reporter has reached Myanmar, and that's a country closed and hostile to most outsiders. He joins us now. And first of all, tell us what you are seeing there on the ground.

UNIDENTIFIED NPR REPORTER: Well, I didn't make it that far out of the capital Yangon today, but you don't really have to make it very far out to see the devastation caused by this thing. I mean just across the river Irrawaddy River, vast areas of the delta are still pretty much under water.

And there are many people who are still coming across the Irrawaddy in boats carrying what few possessions they have left. These are victims of last Saturday's storm and they just have nothing left, so they're coming here and sort of melting into the population here.

MONTAGNE: And people are in pretty bad shape there. Why won't the government of Myanmar allow the U.S. into the country to help?

UNIDENTIFIED NPR REPORTER: The government here has been deeply suspicious of outsiders - the U.S., the international community, the U.N., and just about all outsiders for a very long time now. I mean, they see the U.S. basically as their enemy. They see the U.N. as a political actor in their own internal affairs here. And so they're very reluctant to allow people in.

And there was a foreign ministry statement that was in the New Light of Myanmar newspaper this morning that I think is very telling. It expresses the government's gratitude to the international community for providing all this assistance. But it says that - I'll read it for you.

It says: Currently Myanmar has prioritized receiving emergency relief provisions and is making strenuous efforts to transport those provisions without delay - and the italics here are mine - by its own labor to the affected areas. As such, Myanmar's not yet ready to receive teams from foreign countries.

So that's pretty much what aid workers who are trying to get in here have been worried about all along. They've been worried that Myanmar's government will simply say, you know what, you can send all the aid, all the assistance you want, deliver it to the airport in Yangon, and we'll take it from here. And that appears to be what's happening right now.

I mean, there are international agencies that have people on the ground that have had a presence here for years. And those people are working on the ground and they're distributing aid and they're getting very good cooperation from local officials and provincial officials, they say. But it's the national government that's holding things up. And it's the national government that looks like it's going to continue to hold things up indefinitely.

MONTAGNE: Given that the government is resisting, there's talk about what the international community could be doing or should be doing. What options are available?

UNIDENTIFIED NPR REPORTER: Well, that's a very good question, because if the international community accepts the Myanmar government conditions here, which is basically, you know, drop it off at the airport, we'll take it from here, then they're in a real dilemma. Do they agree to those conditions and not have any oversight over how this aid is delivered and accept the fact that it's going to be delivered by an overtaxed and under-resourced entity, which is the Myanmar government in the first place? I think that's something that the international community is not going to want to do.

And that begs the question, will they decide that they just won't accept these conditions and decide to do something on their own? I mean, I've been sort of incommunicado here for a little bit, but earlier this week the French government was thinking out loud, I think, about taking action, not waiting for the Myanmar government to say that these people were going to be allowed in to help distribute this aid, just taking action on its own or in conjunction with the international community and the time to do that may, in fact, be at hand, some of these governments might think.

MONTAGNE: What do you expect, from what you know and have seen there, might be next?

UNIDENTIFIED NPR REPORTER: I would expect that the government here will continue to drag its feet, because it has this referendum that's coming up tomorrow that it didn't want foreign observers in to observe anyway, this referendum on a new constitution that the opposition and human rights groups call a sham. They didn't want anyone in here to see that in the first place. I think explains some of their reluctance to allow foreign relief workers in, because they were afraid of lots of foreigners running around while this referendum was going on.

That referendum has been delayed in some of these affected areas, but it's going ahead elsewhere in the country. That's tomorrow. And maybe we'll see a little give from the Myanmar government side after that. I wouldn't bet on it, but it's a possibility.

MONTAGNE: Thanks very much.

UNIDENTIFIED NPR REPORTER: You're welcome.

MONTAGNE: And we've been talking to an NPR reporter who is in Myanmar. We're not identifying him because the press are not welcome in that country and for his own protection.

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