Myanmar Sends Mixed Signals on Foreign Aid The military regime says it will approve visas for dozens more relief workers after Cyclone Nargis. But Myanmar has also lashed out against foreign donors. World Vision's Chris Webster reports from Yangon.
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Myanmar Sends Mixed Signals on Foreign Aid

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Myanmar Sends Mixed Signals on Foreign Aid

Myanmar Sends Mixed Signals on Foreign Aid

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Cyclone Nargis hit Myanmar just about four weeks ago, but the relief effort is still just crawling along. This week, Myanmar's military regime said it would approve visas for dozens more relief workers who've waited for weeks to provide assistance to the estimated 2.4 million people who still need food, shelter and medical care.

But the ruling junta also lashed out at aid donors in a newspaper editorial yesterday. The state-run paper criticized the international community for not pledging enough money to the relief effort, and calling the 150-million-dollar pledge so far, quote, "chocolate bars," and saying the people of Myanmar can take care of themselves by surviving on, quote, "fresh vegetables that grow wild in the fields, and on protein-rich fish from the rivers," end quote.

Here to tell us more about the situation on the ground in Myanmar, also known as Burma, is Chris Webster. He's the emergency communications manager for World Vision's Global Rapid Response Team. He joins me now on the line from Yangon. Chris, I understand you got your visa approved only in the last couple of days, and you've just now arrived in Yangon. Is that correct?

Mr. CHRIS WEBSTER (Emergency Communications Manager, Global Rapid Response Team, World Vision): Well, I was waiting three weeks. Essentially, I was deployed to the region straight after the cyclone and have been waiting in Bangkok for three weeks.

MARTIN: I imagine that's a relief, to finally get to where you need to go to do your work. About 45 new visas have been approved or will be approved by the junta after they've made this decision to start to allow more aid workers in. But that's still not very many international aid workers on the ground there in Myanmar. Describe the scope of the work that you're setting out to do now.

Mr. WEBSTER: Well, the scope of this emergency response is huge. I've been able to get assistance to upwards of 250,000 people, and other aid agencies have been able to get aid through as well. But the scale is huge. We really need to solve some practical solutions. And this area affected is extremely remote. Road damage from the weather is atrocious. We've got to get over some of those things as well, but at least we're in a phase where we're talking about practical issues rather than issues just around access of staff and supplies.

MARTIN: Let's talk about some of those more immediate priorities. What is on your agenda right now?

Mr. WEBSTER: Well, the priorities today, three weeks on, or more than three weeks now, are really the same as they were after three days. We still need to get shelter, adequate shelter, food, healthcare, water, down right into those regions. Of course, we have been able to assist people, but you know, there are so many thousands of people that haven't received substantial assistance. So those priorities remain the same.

And of course, I think, as the days have gone on, the risk of public-health crisis has grown each day, and you know, it's a major priority for us to provide water, food and shelter to avert the risk of cholera, dysentery, dengue, malaria, more serious diseases, which, if we aren't able to provide that nutrition and shelter, are going to start taking lives.

MARTIN: So those are still concerns? There were some reports that said that those fears that a second wave of deaths could result from disease, some of those fears had been abated. But you're saying that that's still a real concern.

Mr. WEBSTER: Well, it's a concern, thankfully, that, you know, we're not reporting that at the moment. That's not been what we've witnessed on the ground. But of course, you know, as each day goes by when we're not able to provide that level of assistance, then the risk remains. And it's important and critical that we continue to provide this emergency assistance. And we're very much still in early-days response mode for some of these communities that have, you know, been getting by on very, very little.

MARTIN: Chris, I understand you are doing some work specifically with children, with children who've been left as victims of the storm, of the cyclone. Can you tell us about that?

Mr. WEBSTER: Of course. Yes. It's a major priority for World Vision, and in any aid responses, is the welfare of children. I saw a picture of a young girl who had a - she can't have been more than two, and it explained what village she was from because she had clearly lost her family. And you know, sadly, she's indicative of probably hundreds and thousands of children who are completely lost.

And it's vital, as well as the food, healthcare and shelter, that we provide some emotional support. So World Vision works to establish what we call child-friendly spaces, which are space areas within the place that people are living, and it provides games and activities to give kids, children some enjoyment and some sense of normality. And we understand that if you provide that, particularly in the early response after traumatic events, it gives them a great chance of recovering. So that's a real priority for us now.

MARTIN: A couple of more questions. There are some initial reports crossing the wires today that the military junta in Myanmar is starting to evict families from some of the government-run cyclone-relief centers, apparently out of some concern that these tent villages could be permanent. So they're dissembling them. Have you or your colleagues seen any evidence of that?

Mr. WEBSTER: We haven't experienced it. We're committed to helping people wherever they are, whether they're in their own communities or in the camps. And we'd certainly, yes, want to ensure that those that were in need of humanitarian assistance remained in those places until they were fit to go back or until they chose to go back. And people may well want to be returning to places where they're from, particularly to take advantage of the planting season. There's only a short window within the next five to seven weeks where the planting season is on. So they may well be wanting to go back.

MARTIN: And finally, Chris, as we mentioned in the introduction, that op-ed that appeared in the state-run newspaper seemed to be very dismissive of international aid efforts. What is the government's relationship with aid organizations working there now on the ground? They've now let you in, but will they let you do the work that you need to do, or support you in the way you need to be supported to get that work done?

Mr. WEBSTER: Yes, we heard those reports as well. It does run somewhat contradictory to our experience on the ground. Things appear to be moving, and we have agreements with ministries about our operations down there certainly for the next six months.

MARTIN: Chris, what are you seeing on the ground there? I understand you've only just arrived, but is the suffering visible even on the streets of the capital?

Mr. WEBSTER: Well, in many ways, the capital has recovered very quickly. But at the same time, it was quite emotional flying in, when you realized, you know, having spent three weeks in Bangkok away from this, when you see for yourself some of the damage that the swaths of land that were affected by this cyclone, and coming down into Yangon and seeing roofs ripped off houses, trees in some of the roads. A lot of the debris has been cleaned up, but you know, there's no question that this had a powerful impact on Yangon, and we understand it, down in the delta, it's so much more - so much worse.

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MARTIN: That was a conversation I had earlier this morning with Chris Webster. He's the emergency communications manager for World Vision's global rapid response team. He talked to me from Yangon, Myanmar, which is the former capital of Myanmar. Stay with us. Coming up on the show, we'll hook you about a story about a fishermen's strike in Europe. We cast a wide net here at the BPP, where we don't make puns. Sometimes we do. This is the Bryant Park Project from NPR News.

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