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Death Toll Rises in Myanmar as Aid Groups Face Obstacles

May 7, 2008 at 6:10 PM EDT
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A senior U.S diplomat in Myanmar said Wednesday that the death toll from Tropical Cyclone Nargis could reach 100,000, as disease outbreaks remain a threat and some aid groups face difficulty gaining access to the country. A United Nations official discusses efforts to provide humanitarian aid to the military-ruled country.

GWEN IFILL: Now the latest in Myanmar, the country formerly known as Burma.

We begin with a report from inside Burma by a British television news correspondent. Because the military government has refused entry to most foreign journalists, we can’t reveal his name or news organization. He filed his story under extremely difficult conditions. And the technical quality is not up to usual standards.

REPORTER: There’s not much left of this family’s home.

“We were trapped in that house for hours,” this woman explains. “We were wet and afraid, and we ran to the nearby monastery.”

“The water was right up to here,” this man explains.

“Where are the body of the dead? Where are the body?”

And there were many dead bodies all over here. It was a similar story of devastation as we journeyed through these delta villages toward Bogalay. All the while, we were on the lookout for the Burmese army trucks.

An army truck or not? Every time we come close to a police or military position, we have to duck down and hide in the back of the car, because, if we’re spotted, we might well be detained. The regime has made it pretty clear they don’t want foreigners and their prying eyes around here, and perhaps for good reason.

As we move close to Bogalay, the destruction deepened, as did the anger towards the government. In this village, the locals were scathing about the regime’s response.

This woman showed me her shattered home. A chunk of corrugated iron now covers her precious Buddha shrine. The army’s done nothing to help.

Along the road near the entrance to Bogalay, we met a grieving young man.

“My brother and his wife died while they were still holding hands,” he says.

How many? Very sad, eh?

Many children died, too, as they tried to climb the coconut trees and the snakes bit them. He explained that he had wanted to capture the appalling images of what he had seen, but he was afraid the regime might kill him if they found the tapes.

Fear and suspicion towards the authorities run deep up here. We met another young man. There’s at least 50,000 dead around here, and many dead are being collected by boat from remote villages, he says. It seems the government has taken some bodies to a special place.

We heard similar accusations from other residents of Bogalay. A helicopter was flying overhead near the entrance to the city. And when we tried to enter, we found soldiers lining the bridge. The locals suggested they might be fearful we would see all the dead bodies.

We had to make a retreat. And as we moved back along the nearby road, we met a group of monks still licking their wounds. Even this brick building did not survive the force of the almighty cyclone.

They may not have much to eat, but at least they have salvaged some of their holy relics. Monasteries in the area have come to the salvation of the local people. At this one, hundreds have taken refuge, after losing their homes. At night, this is a temporary shelter for about 1,000 people, who have to fend for their own food and water.

So, you think they will bring some aid? The international will bring some aid here?

MAN: No, no, no, no, no international. No one here.

REPORTER: No one here?

MAN: No one here.

REPORTER: No one came here? No aid agency come here? No one? And no U.N.?

MAN: The government doesn’t — doesn’t accept the other aid. They are closed every place.

REPORTER: So, while the rest of the world clamors to get aid into Burma, there’s nothing these people can do, but wait and hope that the nightmare may soon be lifted.

Secondary disaster now feared

John Holmes
United Nations Undersecretary-General
We have already had a major catastrophe, and the death toll could be extremely high, much higher than [...] the figures we have seen so far from the government.

GWEN IFILL: Margaret Warner has more.

MARGARET WARNER: What can the world do to get aid into Burma? We take up that question now with John Holmes, the United Nations undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief. He's a former British diplomat. And he joins us now from the United Nations.

And, Ambassador Holmes, thank you for being with us.

AMBASSADOR JOHN HOLMES, United Nations Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief: Pleasure.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, the cyclone was obviously a complete disaster, but how close is Myanmar now to a second catastrophe of disease, dehydration, starvation?

AMBASSADOR JOHN HOLMES: Well, as you say, we have already had a major catastrophe, and the death toll could be extremely high, much higher than we have -- the figures we have seen so far from the government.

We are working extremely hard to try and make sure that the second catastrophe you're talking about doesn't happen. Aid is beginning to arrive. Planes are getting there. Four planes from the World Food Program are landing in Myanmar today. And they will get -- bring a lot of food, high-energy biscuits, which is readily eatable and nutritious, and that will help.

It's a huge logistical problem to get the aid, even when you have got it into Rangoon Airport, to get it from there down to the delta, given all the difficulties of communication and the logistics problems. But that's what we're trying to do, as well as to try to persuade the government of Myanmar to relax some of their suspicions and worries about international aid workers entering their country.

I think we are making some progress. We have made some progress on, for example, waiving customs duties and problems for relief coming into the country, but there's still a long way to go.

Working to speed relief

John Holmes
United Nations Undersecretary-General
If we don't move quickly, then the problems of waterborne disease, stagnant water, lack of fresh water, that could really start to let the death toll mount even further.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, at what level are you talking with the Myanmar government? Are these direct talks? And, if s, what are they saying about their reluctance? How do they explain it?

AMBASSADOR JOHN HOLMES: Yes, we are. We're conducting these discussions with all the ministers who have been appointed to conduct this disaster relief in Rangoon with our people on the spot.

And they have been reasonably constructive and positive discussions. They welcomed international assistance. They're letting the planes in. They have agreed to have what we call a flash appeal in the next day or two, to launch a proper appeal, a proper sense of priorities and projects to help people, to get the resources in from the outside world.

Where we have had a little bit of problem is worries and suspicions about international aid workers. They haven't said no. They haven't explained what their problems are. I think it comes from being a rather isolated and suspicious and difficult regime.

But we're trying to persuade them very hard to overcome those suspicions and let people in as soon as possible, because we need those experienced workers to make sure we can channel the aid and get it to people on the ground as quickly as possible, because they desperately need it.

MARGARET WARNER: But, just to be clear now, when these planes fly in now, so just the four World Food Program planes, I mean, they're only allowed basically to deliver the aid to whoever is there on the ground to distribute it; is that right? You're not allowed to leave people, additional people, there?

AMBASSADOR JOHN HOLMES: That is the -- mostly the position at the moment.

We will be having -- getting some people in tomorrow. So, it's not a completely closed book. But, of course, there are, for example, World Food Program staff on the ground already. They already have a substantial program in Myanmar, albeit in different parts of the country. So, there are substantial numbers of U.N. staff already there. There are NGOs on the ground. World Vision are very big, a U.S. NGO, has people on the ground.

But we need extra staff, extra experienced disaster relief staff, in addition to that, to coordinate and make sure that it can all be channeled in the right way, distributed in the right way, monitored in right way to make sure we're not missing people, we're getting to people in the best way possible. That's what we need.

But, of course, the key thing in a way is to get the food in and the clean water, the water purification tablets, the shelter, the plastic sheeting. Whatever we can't buy locally, we need to fly in. But that's beginning to arrive, but extra staff would help to distribute it properly.

MARGARET WARNER: But, now, the material that is arriving now, who is distributing it, and how effectively?

AMBASSADOR JOHN HOLMES: Well, obviously, the government have got their own operations. And they're beginning to use the military more than they were before. And I think that's very welcome. I mean, in some ways, we don't always like the military doing humanitarian operations, but here there is very little choice.

They have got the helicopters, for example. They have begun to use them. Where we can distribute our own food and goods, that's already happening. It's happening directly through NGOs and agencies. But we need to work with the government to make sure that this is done in a coordinated way. They have set up a management disaster, management committee, a structure, and we are working with them to make sure it happens as well as it can, and as rapidly it as can, because that is absolutely the key.

If we don't move quickly, then the problems of waterborne disease, stagnant water, lack of fresh water, that could really start to let the death toll mount even further.

A "logistical problem"

John Holmes
United Nations Undersecretary-General
From a U.N. agency point of view, another 50 or 60 experienced staff would really make a difference, if we can get those in over the next few days.

MARGARET WARNER: But just to -- give us a sense of the foreign aid infrastructure, humanitarian infrastructure that is on the ground now. And, as you said, the U.N. has people there and some of these NGOs. What proportion is it of what's really needed on the ground to cope with a catastrophe of this magnitude?

AMBASSADOR JOHN HOLMES: Well, it's a very hard question to answer in precise numbers.

We have something like 75 or 80 international U.N. staff on the ground, but they're not normally there for disaster relief purposes. And we have a large number of local staff, too, local Burmese staff, who we can redeploy from what they normally do to these tasks. So, there are people there.

But probably we need to, for example, have another -- from a U.N. agency point of view, another 50 or 60 experienced staff would really make a difference, if we can get those in over the next few days.

As I say, we will have four arriving there tomorrow, maybe more arriving in the days to come, but we need to accelerate that process.

MARGARET WARNER: And how confident are you that, when the aid is flown in and distributed, that it is actually getting down to the coastal areas, getting beyond the capital?

AMBASSADOR JOHN HOLMES: Well, that is the biggest problem of all. It is a logistical problem. I don't think there's any lack of willingness to help it get there, because it's perfectly obvious to everybody, including the authorities, that that's where the problems are.

But you have to have the helicopters. You have to have the trucks. You have to have the distribution system to make that happen. That's what organizations like World Vision and the World Food Program are good at. That's why they need to have the people on the ground to make it happen, and to monitor it happening, so that you know it's reaching all those who need it and not being distributed in some politically perverse way or otherwise manipulated.

MARGARET WARNER: And is that why having assessment teams is so important? I mean, the U.N. wants to send in assessment teams, and so do some of the major relief organizations.

AMBASSADOR JOHN HOLMES: Well, we already have some assessment teams on the ground, and they have been there for a couple of days. And they are sending back assessments, which we need to make a flash appeal.

The importance of that is, you need to know exactly what is needed, in what proportions, and what is the most urgent. I mean, the main ingredients are usually reasonably obvious -- food, obviously, clean water, medical supplies. Shelter is very important here and may be very difficult to get the bulk supplies down there.

But you need to know exactly what's needed, where it's needed, how many people are actually affected, in order to provide the right kind of response and to attract the resources from the donors that we need.

"The clock is ticking"

John Holmes
United Nations Undersecretary-General
I think [the Myanmar government] recognized, perhaps a little bit slowly, but they did recognize the scale of the disaster.

MARGARET WARNER: Meanwhile, of course, the clock is ticking. Do you feel the -- the Myanmar government has a sense of urgency about this?

AMBASSADOR JOHN HOLMES: I think they have. I think they recognized, perhaps a little bit slowly, but they did recognize the scale of the disaster.

As I said at the beginning, it's a major catastrophe. And they are beginning to move much faster. They are beginning to be more flexible. They are beginning to realize how -- how much we can help them. They will have to do the bulk of the work, as the local government always has to do. We can supplement that. We can reinforce that. We can add our expertise. And that's why we're trying to persuade them to let our people in.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, finally, the French foreign minister -- you used to be British ambassador to France -- the French foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, said today, if -- if Myanmar doesn't pretty quickly give the green light, that the U.N. should invoke its "responsibility to protect" -- quote, unquote -- clause and simply take in the aid without the permission of the government.

Do you agree that that's an option, a very real option?

AMBASSADOR JOHN HOLMES: Well, I share Bernard Kouchner's frustration, and I have a huge amount of respect for him.

I think we're not at that stage at the moment. We are working with the government. We need to work with the government, if at all possible, because trying to get aid in against the wishes of the government is an extremely complicated thing, which isn't probably going to help the needs of the people on the ground, unless we're very careful.

So, we want to go through this in a cooperative way, not in a confrontational way. But we do need to have -- see more cooperation from the Myanmar government very quickly, indeed, now.

MARGARET WARNER: And how long will you essentially give this? And I know that's not really your decision, as the U.N. undersecretary-general.

But I'm trying to get a sense of, with each day that goes by, how many additional lives do you think are being put at risk?

AMBASSADOR JOHN HOLMES: I really can't put a total on that. I think it would not reasonable for me to do so. Obviously, more lives are at risk of being lost with every hour, with every day that is wasted.

I don't think the days have been wasted at the moment, but they could be better used if we could, as I say, get some more of those experts in and speed up the whole process. And that's what we're trying to do, in cooperation with the government, which is by far the best way of doing it.

MARGARET WARNER: Ambassador John Holmes, U.N. undersecretary-general, thank you so much.