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Myanmar Allows U.N. Officials to Tour Hard-hit Areas

May 19, 2008 at 6:25 PM EST
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now more on the international aid efforts and contacts between Myanmar and the international community. Ray Suarez talked earlier today with Shari Villarosa. She’s the top U.S. diplomat in Rangoon.

RAY SUAREZ: Shari Villarosa, welcome to the program.

Since last we spoke, you had an opportunity to visit the cyclone-affected areas as part of a government tour. What did you see?

SHARI VILLAROSA, U.S. Diplomat in Burma: We went to three different towns that had been hard-hit by the storm. Two were larger towns that appeared to be recovering, with markets open.

The last was more of a village with basically still underwater. We saw tents where people were in. Some of the tents looked occupied. Other of the tents looked like they had been set up to show visitors. So I’m not sure that they’re exactly occupied.

RAY SUAREZ: Were you able to go where you wanted, or was this a tour where the government showed you camps they wanted the international community to see?

SHARI VILLAROSA: Yes, I mean, we were taken in the helicopter and we went there. While we were there, we were free to walk around, and I did.

We went to one school where there were 2,000 people living, while they were putting on presentations for the other, I was wandering around and came across like a room filled with relief supplies that I couldn’t quite figure out why they were not being distributed. Possibly they were there for the people living in the school; I don’t know.

But nobody interfered with me as I wandered about. But certainly since we were taken from helicopter, from place to place — but we couldn’t sit there and say, OK, we want you to touch down here.

RAY SUAREZ: Have you detected any change in attitude toward American offers of aid in your conversations with the government of Myanmar?

SHARI VILLAROSA: Yes, they seem to be ready to open some more to international assistance, including letting international relief workers come in.

During my visit, the minister of planning was, I guess, the group leader, and I specifically asked him about this. And he said that it was going to be possible.

We’ve subsequently heard that they’re prepared to let ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which Burma is a member, to kind of take the lead. And then there’s the hope that, with ASEAN coming in, then the U.N., and the rest of the international community can come in behind them.

New hope for relief efforts

RAY SUAREZ: If you look at capacities for relief, setting up mobile field hospitals, building emergency roads, heavy lift capacity, in the United States, a lot of that rests with the U.S. military. Is that impossible to negotiate?

SHARI VILLAROSA: One would think. But, again, we're getting indications of interest; we're not getting just outright rejection. I think with continued, persistent, but patient prodding, they will open up.

One of the things, in particular, the ASEAN neighbors are quite familiar about how helpful the U.S. military can be in these disasters. They know directly from the assistance we provided after the 2004 tsunami. So I expect that they will likely be advocates for a bigger role for us.

There's people out there that I fear have no food, no drinking water, and they've been like this for more than two weeks. So I think it's increasingly important that we get to these people quickly.

RAY SUAREZ: How much American aid has been delivered to Burma so far? And do you feel at this point that it's reached hungry people?

SHARI VILLAROSA: We have not provided as much food aid as we've provided water and shelter. And, yes, I do feel that it has gotten to those people.

In fact, during my trip, in this most remote village, very far in the south, I saw boxes from USAID with tarps and plastic sheeting in it. And definitely it was needed where I was.

RAY SUAREZ: Is there a concern in the capital about getting the next rice crop into the ground? If that's not done soon, could the effects of the cyclone last into next year, leaving the Burmese once again short of rice?

SHARI VILLAROSA: The area that was hit is a primary -- is rice-growing area. I heard that it produces about one-fifth or one-sixth of the total supply for the country, so that's obviously a very sizable portion.

The problem with the land is that this saltwater came and washed over everything. So it's not the land that it was before.

So there are special kinds of rice that can grow in a saltier soil. And there's also ways that you can take some of the salt out of the soil. It's going to take a major effort to get these fields drained, to get the proper types of rice, and to correct the soil.

RAY SUAREZ: U.S. Charge d'Affaires Shari Villarosa, thanks for talking to us.

SHARI VILLAROSA: You're welcome.