With only a few aging helicopters and little disaster experience, Myanmar's junta is risking the lives of millions of cyclone survivors by running the relief operation alone, aid experts said Friday.
Since Cyclone Nargis struck a week ago, few of the estimated 1.9 million survivors in the country's flooded Irrawaddy delta have received any assistance and aid agencies fear many will die of disease.
"Not only don't they have the capacity to deliver assistance, they don't have experience," said Mark Farmaner, director of Burma Campaign UK, which campaigns for human rights and democracy in the country. "It's already too late for many people. Every day of delays is costing thousands of lives."
Few countries are capable of dealing with a disaster of this magnitude, a fact that is magnified in a country like Myanmar, which is one of the poorest in Asia. The government has spent the bulk of its money on building the 400,000-strong military and lacks even the most basic equipment for a relief effort.
'The task is so awesome'
Andrew Brookes, an aerospace specialist at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, an independent think tank, estimates the country has only 15 transport planes and fewer than 40 helicopters. The planes, he said, are not able to transport tons of food and many of the helicopters are not operational.
"Even if they (the helicopters) were all serviceable, it's not even a drop in the ocean," Brookes said. "The task is so awesome. It would faze even a sophisticated force like the British, French or Germans."
Foreign aid agencies and governments, many of which are seeking visas for their workers, argue they can bring years of experience to the job from managing disasters like the 2004 tsunami and the 2005 Pakistani earthquake.
They have the helicopters, cargo planes and trucks to quickly deliver supplies, the expertise to reach survivors in the most inhospitable situations and the ability to avert disease outbreaks and starvation.
"As we know, the first two weeks are crucial. Speed is crucial," said Sarah Ireland, a regional director for the aid agency Oxfam. It has yet to receive permission to join the relief effort.
"Whilst we understand concerns the government might have, we would urge them to listen to organizations like us," Ireland said.
Christiane Berthiaume of the World Food Program said aid agencies are an integral part of any relief effort.
"We always work with NGOs, especially in emergencies, because to do distribution you need expertise," she said. "You need people who know how to do the job. When it's a situation of life or death, you have no time for training."
Others contend that handing over relief supplies to the Myanmar government without outside oversight could result in assistance being diverted to junta supporters or lost to corruption.
Farmaner said he already has heard reports of the military taking relief supplies and putting general's names on them in a government propaganda campaign.
Reaching the victims
"We have to be accountable to our donors in the states that paid for this assistance and we have to be transparent," said Elisabeth Byrs of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. "We have to be sure the aid is reaching the victims."
So far, arguments to allow experts and equipment into the country have fallen on deaf ears.
In a statement e-mailed to The Associated Press, government spokesman Ye Htut said the junta was conducting relief operations "systematically and orderly" and saw no need for outside assistance beyond donations of cash and relief supplies.
"Myanmar has prioritized receiving emergency relief provisions and is making strenuous efforts to transport those provisions without delay by its own labor to the affected areas," Ye Htut said.
Junta seizes U.N. aid
The government hammered home that point Friday, when it seized 38 tons of high-energy biscuits from two WFP flights that landed in Yangon. The biscuits were enough to feed 95,000 people.
That prompted the U.N. agency to say it would temporarily halt relief flights. Later, WFP chief spokeswoman Nancy Roman said flights would resume Saturday while negotiations continued for the release of the supplies.
The frustration was evident in the voice of Shari Villarosa, the top American diplomat in Myanmar, who met with Myanmar Deputy Foreign Minister Kyaw Thu. She came away without a commitment to allow American aid workers into the country, saying the government "was not ready," to accept the help.
"I'm bewildered," Villarosa told The Associated Press. "None of this makes any sense."