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May 6, 2008

ASEAN/MYANMAR/DISASTER RELIEF
Aids ready to pour in as toll mounts

Asean Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan on Monday called for all member states to offer "urgent relief assistance" to Myanmar as Nyan Win, the country’s foreign minister said the death toll from a devastating cyclone could reach more than 10,000.

“I am sure Myanmar’s neighbours in Asean are standing by ready to join the international community to extend help in whatever form the government of Myanmar would like them to do,” adding that such assistance would be “in line with the spirit” of the Asean Agreement on Disaster Management and Emergency Response, which was signed in 2005 but was not yet in force.

The United Nations has said hundreds of thousands of people have been left homeless by Tropical Cyclone Nargis, which struck late Friday about 220 kilometres southwest of Yangon.

It knocked out electricity to the country's largest city, Yangon, and left hundreds of thousands of people homeless. Some sought refuge at Buddhist monasteries while others lined up Monday to buy candles, which had doubled in price, and water since the lack of electricity-driven pumps had left most households dry.

Myanmar is not known to have an adequate disaster warning system and many rural buildings are constructed of thatch, bamboo and other materials easily destroyed by fierce storms.

“The government misled people. They could have warned us about the severity of the coming cyclone so we could be better prepared,” AFP quoted Thin Thin, a grocery store owner, as saying.

Myanmar’s ruling junta, which has spurned the international community for decades, appealed for aid on Monday. But the US State Department said Myanmar’s government had not granted permission for a Disaster Assistance Response Team into the country.

At a Monday meeting with foreign diplomats and representatives of UN and international aid agencies, Myanmar's foreign ministry officials said they welcomed international humanitarian assistance and urgently need roofing materials, plastic sheets and temporary tents, medicine, water purifying tablets, blankets and mosquito nets.
In Washington, the State Department said the US Embassy in Yangon had authorised an emergency contribution of $250,000 to help with relief efforts.
"We have a DART team that is standing by and ready to go into Burma (Myanmar) to help try to assess needs there," deputy spokesman Tom Casey told reporters. “As of this moment, the Burmese government has not given them permission, however, to go into the country so that is a barrier to us being able to move forward.”

In a later report, a UN spokesman said Myanmar's military authorities gave the United Nations permission on Monday to send emergency aid to help the cyclone victims.

France's Foreign Ministry said it was sending $309,200 in emergency aid and that France's foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, was ready to travel to the country “to personally testify to France's solidarity with the people of Myanmar.”

Israel also plans to send emergency aid once its ambassador compiles a list of what is needed, Foreign Ministry spokesman Arye Mekel said.

Thailand has donated $50,000 while the military has offered dried food and medicines to Myanmar.

The European Union said it was providing $3 million in urgent humanitarian aid for cyclone victims.

“With every hour that passes, the news coming out of Myanmar gets grimmer and grimmer,” EU Development Commissioner Louis Michel said. “This is a terrible catastrophe that demands a quick and effective humanitarian response.”

Laura Blank, spokeswoman for World Vision, said two assessment teams have been sent to the hardest hit areas to determine the most urgent needs.

“This is probably the most devastating natural disaster in Southeast Asia since the tsunami,” Blank said, referring to the 2004 disaster that killed around 230,000 people in 12 Indian Ocean nations. “There are a lot of important needs, but the most important is clean water.”

Myanmar Red volunteers already were distributing some basic items, said Matthew Cochrane at the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies’ Geneva headquarters.

The World Food Program has pre-positioned 500 tons of food in Yangon and plans to bring in more relief supplies, said Elisabeth Byrs, spokeswoman for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

Despite the havoc wreaked by the cyclone across wide swaths of the country, the government indicated that a referendum on the country’s draft constitution would proceed as planned on May 10.


“It’s only a few days left before the coming referendum and people are eager to cast their vote,” the state-owned newspaper Myanma Ahlin said Monday.

Pro-democracy groups in the country and many international critics have branded the proposed constitution as merely a tool for the military's continued grip on power.

Should the junta be seen as failing disaster victims, voters who already blame the regime for ruining the economy and crushing democracy could take out their frustrations at the ballot box.


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