Myanmar's military rulers are creating serious complications in the effort to aid survivors of last Saturday's cyclone that devastated the region. More than 60,000 people are dead or missing, and international aid organizations fear the toll could surpass 100,000 if the ruling junta does not allow humanitarian shipments to cross the borders.
The U.S. State Department says it has gotten the go-ahead to send one plane carrying food and supplies on Monday, and several U.N. deliveries are scheduled for this weekend. But the reclusive government is refusing to allow foreign relief experts into the country.
On Friday, the junta took control of two planeloads of 38 tons of high-energy biscuits — enough to feed 95,000 people — that were delivered by the United Nations, according to Paul Risley, a spokesman for the U.N. World Food Program in Bangkok.
"We are working very closely with the ministries, with the government officials that we know, to ensure that those biscuits are part of an effective measure to bring food now to the people who need it," Risley tells NPR's Michele Norris.
After the shipments were seized, the WFP said it would suspend all aid flights into the country. The agency later said it would resume flights on Saturday while it negotiates with Myanmar's military.
The WFP has 240 national and international staff workers on the ground in the country. On Friday morning, Risley says, they began setting up a food hub in Labuta Township, one of the areas hardest hit by Cyclone Nargis.
"Slowly but surely, we are able to increase our knowledge of what the survivors of the cyclone need right now," Risley says. "The challenge is literally a race against time to persuade the government that we can work with them."
Humanitarian experts generally work within a 10-day window to get aid to survivors of a natural disaster. After that point, survivors may be forced to resort to drinking polluted water, increasing the risk of waterborne illnesses such as cholera and dysentery.
"In any country, I think by the sixth day afterwards there would be international assistance available and present and ready to help the people who are most in need," Risley says. "But because of politics, because of history, because of the way people look at different boundaries and borders, there is still a great challenge and a great difficulty in getting something as simple as a biscuit to a man or a woman or child who have been waiting since Saturday."
The U.N. said it would resume aid flights to cyclone-stricken Myanmar on Saturday, after the World Food Program suspended shipments because the country's military regime seized vital supplies.
On Friday, a planeload of high-energy biscuits and other supplies sent by the WFP was impounded by Myanmar's military, which has said it is grateful for the aid, but has insisted on distributing the relief supplies to the survivors of the cyclone that hit the country's Irrawaddy delta region a week ago.
WFP chief spokeswoman Nancy Roman said Friday that negotiations are continuing to release two planeloads of high-energy biscuits impounded by Myanmar.
After that cargo was confiscated, World Food Program spokesman Paul Risley said shipments would be suspended until the situation could be resolved.
Risley said that Myanmar's refusal to allow international aid workers into the country was "unprecedented in modern humanitarian relief efforts."
A U.N. weather agency is forecasting heavy rains next week in Myanmar.
The official death toll from Saturday's cyclone and tidal surge stands at nearly 23,000. But officials fear it will go much higher, with the lack of safe food and water.
U.S. planes packed with relief supplies are standing by in Thailand, awaiting permission from Myanmar to fly in.
Myanmar's isolationist junta said in a statement Friday that it is grateful for the international assistance, but it wants to distribute the aid itself.
The country's military rulers have yet to issue visas for aid workers. One plane carrying relief aid was sent back because it had a search-and-rescue team and reporters on board.
State media in Myanmar said 42,019 were missing from Cyclone Nargis, which hit the country's Irrawaddy delta Saturday. Shari Villarosa, who heads the U.S. Embassy in Yangon, said the number of dead could exceed 100,000 because of illnesses.