Myanmar Keeps Relief Workers at Bay

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After almost a week of refusal following a deadly cyclone, Myanmar has agreed to allow one U.S. cargo plane to make a delivery of aid. The government there is still refusing entry to worldwide aid agencies. Gordon Bacon of the International Rescue Committee is one of the few who have been able to enter the country.

ANDREA SEABROOK, host:

From NPR News, it's All Things Considered. I'm Andrea Seabrook.

A strange combination of scenes today, election day in Myanmar. With millions of storm victims struggling for survival, the military leaders of the country formally known as Burma held a national referendum today. It's aimed at consolidating their power. Outside the country, human rights activists and dissidents say the government is holding up help from the outside world. I talked earlier with one of the few international aid workers who has made it into Myanmar. He's Gordon Bacon with the International Rescue Committee and he joins us by phone from the city of Yangon. Gordon Bacon, you got in. Tell us what it's like here.

Mr. GORDON BACON (Emergency Response Coordinator, International Rescue Committee): Well, when I - even when I drove from the airport it was obviously the damage of a storm something of which that I've never seen before. Every street where there had been trees, they were down and it looked as if it had been raining trees and branches. And they were either in gardens, laying against buildings, and some cases smashed into buildings so it was very, very obvious there had been an immense storm.

SEABROOK: And the people?

Mr. BACON: The people look - in the town they're okay because they haven't had the worst and I would imagine the communications are so bad that many of them probably still don't know what's happened and the enormity of it. But yesterday, I did have a ride west of Yangon. The people that we did see just looked totally lost. The fisherman or the farming people living in shacks, you know, the poor end of the food chain as it were, they're classes have been, in many cases, totally flattened. We saw people trying to repair, but they've got nothing. And the awful thing is they haven't seen anyone. And I suppose you've got to have sympathy with the authorities that further west, whole villages are being swept away by all account and the loss of life is going to be monumental. There are stories now that this is probably going to be as many, if not than 200,000, not the 100,000 that I heard yesterday when I landed. There are people in this country now who haven't got shelter, haven't got clean water. I heard a story today where one small village is being inundated with 2,000 people and all they've been living on were coconuts. Now these people are going to get sick. They're going to be drinking infected water. They're going to be eating a very poor diet. And when they get sick, there's nobody to help them.

SEABROOK: The government has now agreed to allow an aid plane into Myanmar, but only a handful of aid workers. Can that work?

Mr. BACON: Probably with great difficulty because I think I've already heard it mentioned by somebody yesterday at a shelter meeting that the people who've got the most facilities are the army. They've got the people, they've got the vehicles, they've got the helicopters, they've got the fuel. But what they haven't got is the know-how to deal with a catastrophe on this scale. And to be honest, very few people have. I think the international community when the Tsunami happened said, we've never had to deal with before. Well, now we are dealing with something as big. These aid agencies have learned from that and they are able and willing to help. IRC on its own has got four people who have trying to get in from Bangkok for a week and they still can't get a visa.

SEABROOK: I understand that you're there with just one other member of your group, the IRC.

Mr. BACON: Yeah, we have luckily one international member who was part of the team in Thailand. Now because she was a national she could get in here. I'm the only international who's got a visa. We already are putting together a team and we will start delivering aid locally. But we can only deliver aid that we can buy locally. We have already been given the nod for two international countries bringing aid in here, that they would like us to distribute it. But I don't know that it's going to get in. We heard that yesterday a convoy that was coming from Thailand, you know, all of the aid was confiscated. There are many agencies who were here before this cyclone hit. They're wanting to bring more people in and they're just knocking their heads against the wall.

SEABROOK: What will you do if you do get your team in?

Mr. BACON: If we get our team in, what we will do is work with the big coordinating agencies such as UNHCR and say to them, okay, we want to help with water and sanitation, which is ensuring that fifth world people have good water to drink and secondly, that the water they drink is clean. A massive problem will be the secondary problem of disease. One of the prime causes of that are unclean toilets. So we want to start working on the sanitation and shelter. It's the rainy season. It's going to pour down with rain virtually on a daily basis during the monsoon season, so what IRC wants to do is concentrate water sanitation, emergency healthcare, and primary healthcare, and shelter. Leave other aspects of feeding and other types of aid work to other agencies. Nobody can do it all and nobody can do it - can do even one thing all over the country. This has got to be a coordinated effort and this is where the experience of the international aid will really come to play.

SEABROOK: Gordon Bacon is the emergency response coordinator for the International Rescue Committee. He's in Yangon, Myanmar. Thanks very much for speaking with us, sir.

Mr. BACON: Okay. Thank you.

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