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May 8, 2008

France mulls ‘invading’ Myanmar to deliver aid


Cyclone victims gather at a monastery in Labutta, the worst-hit town in the delta

As the Myanmar government put the official tally of deaths from cyclone Nargis at 22,500, with more than 41,000 missing, and an estimated 1 million homeless, it is facing an increasing pressure from the United Nations and donor countries to allow massive aid into their ravaged country.

The junta’s reluctance to accept outside relief assistance has upset many donor countries, including the United States, whose diplomat in Myanmar warned that the toll could rise to 100,000 if aid was not prompt.

The French foreign minister, meanwhile, suggested invoking United Nations powers to force delivery of international relief supplies.

Shari Villarosa, the charg? d'affaires at the United States Embassy in Myanmar, held a conference call Wednesday with reporters to tell of the Myanmar government’s estimate and the worst-case toll, which she said was based on information being provided by an international aid organisation that she did not name.

“The situation in the delta sounds more and more horrendous," Reuters quoted her as saying. She said many people had died when the storm struck while they were sleeping, and they were either drowned or swept out to sea.

Earlier in the day, the French foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, said that the United Nations should invoke its "responsibility to protect" civilians as the basis for a resolution to allow the delivery of international aid even without the permission of the military junta.

Despite the emerging scale of the disaster, the Myanmar government has let in little aid and has restricted movement in the delta, aid agencies say. It has not granted visas to aid workers, even though supplies are being marshaled in nearby countries like Thailand.

"We are seeing at the United Nations if we can't implement the responsibility to protect, given that food, boats and relief teams are there, and obtain a United Nations' resolution which authorizes the delivery and imposes this on the Burmese government," Kouchner, who co-founded the aid group Doctors Without Borders, told reporters in Paris.

But the United Nations' under-secretary general for humanitarian affairs, John Holmes, resisted the idea of taking action to force Myanmar to open its doors, though he noted that 50 to 10 United Nations aid workers were awaiting word on their applications for visas.

"To be honest I'm not sure we're at that stage at the moment," Holmes said at a noon briefing on Wednesday. "We are having useful and constructive discussions with the authorities of Myanmar. It is moving in the right direction. We want it to move much faster, clearly. But I'm not sure it would help at this moment at least to embark on what could be seen by some people as a confrontational path."

When a reporter from Al Jazeera asked why the United Nations should not simply going into Myanmar, "invited or not," Holmes replied tartly, "I'm not sure that invading Myanmar would be a very sensible option at this particular moment." He added: "Would it actually get aid to the people who are really suffering on the ground any quicker? Personally I doubt it."

The United Nations World Food Program, one of a half-dozen agencies with staff on standby, is flying in 45 tons of high-energy biscuits on Thursday morning from warehouses in Bangladesh, but has 13 personnel waiting to enter Myanmar to help with distribution.

The junta only agreed to allow the shipment after a day of discussions, said Tony Banbury, the program's regional director.

"When we informed them that we wanted to transport these biscuits by air the initial response was okay, as long as you hand them over to us," he said. That's not the way we operate. That turned into an all-day discussion. In the end they agreed that the World Food Program would be responsible for handing them out."

The Myanmar government has told United Nations officials that it dedicated seven helicopters and 80 ships to relief operations. “Seven is a very small number considering the enormous logistical needs," said Paul Risley, a spokesman for the World Food Program's Asia operations.

The political party of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who is under house arrest, has called for urgent international aid. But the reclusive generals who run Myanmar are obviously reluctant to allow large numbers of foreigners into the country.

One reason may be that on Saturday, Burmese are supposed to vote on an important referendum on a proposed constitution backed by the military; so far, voting is expected to go ahead in much of the country.

Many countries are sending supplies to neighboring Thailand to await approval to move them into Myanmar. Spain, for example, announced that it will send a plane with 13 tons of medicine, tents and drinking water to Thailand, while awaiting permission from Yangon to deliver the aid.

In Washington, the White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said Wednesday that Myanmar had still not responded to its offers of aid. "Everybody can understand that there is no substitute for being there on the ground to help people directly, and trying to do so remotely is going to be impossible," she said.

Washington's understanding, she said, is that "no one has been granted access to go in." There is an American disaster relief team waiting in Thailand.

In Paris, Kouchner, whose Doctors without Borders was organised to provide emergency medical help in closed political areas, said that French, British and Indian navies had ships directly opposite the worst-hit areas of Myanmar and were ready to help.

"It would only take half an hour for the French boats and French helicopters to reach the disaster area, and I imagine it's the same story for our British friends," he said. "We are putting constant pressure on the Burmese authorities but we haven't yet got the go ahead."

But in a possibly encouraging sign, Myanmar granted Denmark's ambassador in Thailand, Michael Sternberg, a one-week visa to help evaluate the extent of the damage and aid needs there, the Danish foreign ministry announced in Copenhagen.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is expected to try to contact the Yangon authorities on Wednesday to urge them to meet with disaster-relief officials and allow aid to enter.

Myanmar state television news on Wednesday quoted General Tha Aye reassuring people that the situation is "returning to normal."

The state-run Myanmar media has shown countless images of generals handing out food and surveying damage, footage that is meant to reinforce the notion that the military is in control, said said Win Min, a lecturer in contemporary Burmese politics at Payap University in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

"They are trying to show the people that you have to rely on us, not foreigners, not the opposition," he said.

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