A senior U.N. envoy arrived in Myanmar on Sunday to urge its military junta to accept more international aid for cyclone survivors, amid mounting fears of starvation, especially among children.
John Holmes, the U.N. undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs, was greeted by Deputy Foreign Minister Kyaw Thu at the start of a three-day trip that will include a tour of the Irrawaddy delta, the area most severely hit by Cyclone Nargis on May 2 and 3.
Holmes will also meet with high government leaders, said Daniel Baker, a senior U.N. official.
He did not elaborate but other officials have said Holmes' mission is to assess the needs of survivors and urge the isolationist junta to open its doors to more international aid before people begin dying from starvation and diseases.
Holmes was dispatched to Myanmar after junta leader Senior Gen. Than Shwe refused to take telephone calls from United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon or to respond to two letters from him, U.N. spokesman Michele Montas said in New York. Holmes is to deliver a third letter.
His visit comes as world leaders expressed outrage at the handling of the disaster by the military regime, which insists it is managing relief operations perfectly well on its own despite evidence that many of the 2.5 million survivors are living in misery — with little food, shelter, medical help, clean drinking water or sanitation.
About 78,000 people are confirmed dead and 56,000 missing in the cyclone, according to the government. Aid agencies, however, say the death toll alone could be 128,000.
A glimmer of hope was raised Sunday when British Foreign Office Minister for Asia Lord Malloch-Brown said Myanmar may accept a compromise to use Asian intermediaries to open up to foreign help, including allowing Western ships to deliver aid to the country, which is also known as Burma.
"We're just going to have see what negotiations in the coming days by the Asian leaders, by the U.N. secretary-general, achieve," Malloch-Brown told the British Broadcasting Corp. "I think you're going to see quite dramatic steps by the Burmese to open up."
But he suggested an agreement was still some way off.
A U.N. report said Saturday that emergency relief from the international community had reached an estimated 500,000 people only.
"This is inhuman," British Prime Minister Gordon Brown told the BBC, accusing the military regime of caring more about its own survival than its people's welfare.
The junta says it has completed relief operations and will now turn to reconstruction. It has barred foreign aid experts, including the U.N.'s international staff, from traveling to the worst-hit Irrawaddy delta.
Aid agencies have been forced to depend on their limited local Myanmar staff to distribute relief in the delta.
Children at risk
On Sunday, the regime accused foreign news organizations of falsely reporting that the government was refusing or hindering international relief aid.
"Some foreign news agencies broadcast false information and thus some international and regional organizations are assuming that the government has been rejecting and preventing aids for storm victims," a government statement said. "Those who have been to Myanmar understand the actual fact."
But foreign aid agencies in Myanmar paint a different picture.
Save the Children, a global aid agency, said Sunday that thousands of young children face starvation without quick food aid.
"We are extremely worried that many children in the affected areas are now suffering from severe acute malnourishment, the most serious level of hunger," said Jasmine Whitbread, who heads the agency's operation in Britain. "When people reach this stage, they can die in a matter of days."
The U.N. report said the ruling generals were even forbidding the import of communications equipment, hampering already difficult contact among relief agencies.
The government has ordered that all equipment used by foreign agencies must be purchased through Myanmar's Ministry of Posts and Communications — with a maximum of 10 telephones per agency — for US$1,500 (euro960) each, it said.
The military junta's xenophobia stems from the fear that allowing foreign aid workers to mingle with ordinary people will embolden them to rebel against 46 years of authoritarian rule.
In one town near Yangon, tired and hungry refugees stood in the baking sun beside flooded rice paddies, demolished monasteries and thatched huts. With the arrival of each vehicle carrying precious food and water, they jumped with excitement and surged ahead to get a share.
At least they were getting something.
"The farther you go, the worse the situation," said an overwhelmed doctor in the town of Twante, just southwest of Yangon, Myanmar's main city. The doctor declined to give her name, fearing government reprisal.