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Myanmar OKs Greater Access for Aid Workers but Obstacles Remain

May 23, 2008 at 6:10 PM EDT
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U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon said Friday that Myanmar's ruling junta had agreed to allow "all aid workers" into the cyclone-ravaged country -- although questions remain as to the timing and logistics of such access. Two aid officials discuss the state of relief efforts.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Just how much more aid will get to the Myanmar people now that the country’s military rulers have said they will accept international help?

We get two perspectives. Ned Olney is vice president for International Humanitarian Response at Save the Children. And Eric Stover is director of the Human Rights Center at the University of California, Berkeley, and adjunct professor of public health. He just returned from a two-week trip to Myanmar.

Gentlemen, thank you for being with us.

And, Ned Olney, I want to turn to you first. What do you make of this announcement by the military rulers that now, after three weeks, they are going to let the aid workers come in?

NED OLNEY, Save the Children: Well, we’re enthusiastic and hopeful, and we’re going to test it. Today we’ve already submitted two requests to get two of our staff out to the Irrawaddy Delta.

We have questions, whether it means staff from all countries, whether it means just to Yangon or out to Irrawaddy, and what the process is going to be.

But I think that this debate around visas and access has masked the fact that there is considerable amount of aid that is getting out to the Irrawaddy Delta and that most of that assistance is being delivered by really quite heroic Burmese staff.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Eric Stover, do you see this as a breakthrough?

ERIC STOVER, University of California, Berkeley: I wouldn’t characterize it as a breakthrough. I would say it’s very, very good news.

But we have to keep a perspective here. And that is, as far as my knowledge is, this is the first time in recent history — or perhaps ever — that the U.N. secretary-general has had to travel three weeks into a crisis like this, a natural disaster, and has had to go to the head of that nation and ask — plead, in fact — to be able to have international aid come into the country.

So while we need to focus and welcome this news, we also have to ask, why did this happen? And I would hope in the future, in the months ahead, the United Nations would consider even establishing a commission of inquiry, perhaps with the participation of ASEAN nations, to really establish what happened here and how can we respond better in the future.

Because the cyclone season is going it to arrive again next year. There’s also the possibility of other disasters, including earthquakes or an outbreak of avian influenza. And we can’t have this slow response we’ve seen this time.

Accountability for the Burmese

JUDY WOODRUFF: So you're saying, to the best of your knowledge, it's never had to go this long and have someone at this level to go in and ask people to let help come in?

ERIC STOVER: Absolutely. I made two trips into the delta south of Rangoon on day five after the cyclone and then again on day 10. And what was striking was that this -- and I've been in many warzones and natural disasters afterwards.

And never have you seen a situation where there should have been U.N. vehicles taking aid in. So let's welcome this decision, but let's also have some accountability for the Burmese people.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Ned Olney of Save the Children, what exactly now can be done that couldn't be done before?

NED OLNEY: Well, up until now what we've seen is we've had to be adaptable on how to get our resources out to the field. I think what the United Nations brings -- and with this announcement, I think it really supports the United Nations and, perhaps, other foreign governments in getting access to the field.

We've been able to help approximately 25 percent of the affected. There are still 75 percent of the people whose communities were devastated, haven't received any aid yet. It's really the United Nations that can bring that kind of a broad pipeline of supplies and assets to the field.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So are we talking about getting more trucks on the ground, getting more, larger amounts of food, shelter? What are we talking about?

NED OLNEY: Yes, absolutely. We've been buying in the local markets most of the supplies that we need, although there's been an increasing air bridge.

But what you find in most emergency responses around the world is that, to manage a large response, an effective response, you need a flow of supplies from neighboring countries, also an air bridge, and a flow of supplies through merchant marine shipping vessels.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you're saying that, up until now, only a quarter of the people who need help, as best you can tell, have received it.

NED OLNEY: Correct.

Working around restrictions

JUDY WOODRUFF: How significant is it, though, Eric Stover, that they still won't allow military vessels to get close, that they're talking about, yes, commercial vessels and, yes, air flights, but not the military?

ERIC STOVER: My understanding is that there are French and U.S. ships off the coast and that, in fact, the U.S. government has proposed to the Burmese government that they're welcome to send officials to fly with helicopters to take in that aid.

So that would be a further welcome development, if they would agree to do that.

It should be pointed out, last week when I was in Bangkok, it was announced by the World Food Programme that there's a need for 375 tons a day of rice to get in, yet they were only able to get in about 200 tons last week. So there's still a real need here.

Also, Burma is in a permanent human rights crisis. And it has been for the last -- I'm sorry, public health crisis, for the last two or three decades. And we need to deal with the underlying problems and the inability of the government to respond to a disaster quickly. This has to be taken up in the future.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Ned Olney, is there any way to know what difference it would have made if all the aid that was available could have gotten in, all the way in, right away, after the cyclone hit?

NED OLNEY: It's difficult to tell. I think where we would have liked to be now, where we would like to have been is to have a much more robust logistical capacity, to have those specialists, highly trained emergency response staff in there on day one.

We're about saving lives now. And we were about saving lives in the first day. And we had staff on the ground. We had 500 staff in Burma before the cyclone hit.

We've had really capable staff saving lives, and what we've done is increase that capacity. Because we were having a restricted flow of expat staff come from outside of the country, we've adapted our approach and have hired local staff who know how to work within the system.

I've got to tell you...

JUDY WOODRUFF: So you worked around the restrictions?

NED OLNEY: We worked around the restrictions. And different organizations have had different levels of access.

I should tell you that yesterday Save the Children trucks were in a convoy with United Nations trucks. And they were stopped, as we were moving out to the Irrawaddy Delta.

The United Nations trucks were stopped, and the Save the Children trucks were waved through. So that different levels of comfort with different organizations.

So I think that when the public hears, "No aid is getting through, limited aid is getting through," they think there's a more complex story there, and the organizations who have the history, the knowledge of working have been able to provide assistance.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But going forward now, those U.N. trucks are going to be allowed through?

NED OLNEY: We hope so.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Eric Stover, what more needs to be done? You were there when the cyclone hit, immediately after. What more needs to be done right now?

ERIC STOVER: Well, first of all, I think it's important to point out for the organizations like Save the Children, and the United Nations, and international aid groups that are in the country, they're between a rock and a hard place, because they cannot speak out when they're prevented from providing aid. If they do, they could be expelled from the country.

Indeed, the U.N. representative to Burma, Charles Petrie, was expelled at the beginning of this year for making comments which were critical of the government, or perceived to be.

So what we need to see now is an openness, a transparency, an accountability. We need to see that that aid is getting to those most in need. It can't just be the aid that's provided and they're doing a good job at doing that, by NGOs, the smaller organizations. But it has to be a full force by the United Nations.

And we also have to be...

JUDY WOODRUFF: Go ahead and finish your thought.

ERIC STOVER: ... yes, was simply to say that what happened to farmers in the delta is they were planning for their monsoon rain season planting of rice. And their supplies, their fertilizer were swept away.

And so now we need to ensure that that planting takes place, that there's reconstruction efforts, and that there's an alleviation of disease, which is going to be, frankly, the second wave that's hitting us now.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Eric Stover and Ned Olney, thank you both very, very much.

NED OLNEY: Thank you.