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Aid Official Discusses Challenges of Working in Myanmar

May 12, 2008 at 6:15 PM EST
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The military regime governing Myanmar has been slow to relax its grip on things even in the wake of the current humanitarian crisis there, which has drawn criticism from many quarters. An official with a nonprofit working in Myanmar describes the challenges they face there.
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TRANSCRIPT

RAY SUAREZ: Tim Costello of World Vision, welcome to the program.

TIM COSTELLO, World Vision Australia, CEO: Thank you.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, there’s word today of aid shipments being allowed in. Is there any sign that the government is more willing to cooperate with nations trying to help?

TIM COSTELLO: Yes, the door is a little more ajar. It’s not wide open. As you know, that’s just been a trickle of aid, a three-inch pipe, if you like, when we need a 30-foot pipe just pumping it through to reach tens of thousands who still haven’t got aid to.

But today has been better news. But, still, the scale of this disaster and the level of suffering, there hasn’t been a commensurate response.

And the shipments coming in have to be unloaded, and foreign personnel have to get back on them and leave. And they have to be unloaded and handed over to the government, which obviously isn’t ideal, but still you take whatever hope and joy you can.

Local aid is the only option

RAY SUAREZ: Is the situation any better if you're trying to get aid in through a nongovernmental organization, like your own, as opposed to a government?

TIM COSTELLO: No. We still have World Vision's aircraft in Dubai, still waiting clearance. It's been waiting seven days.

Thankfully, what we have been able to do is source goods in the country. Yangon is back on its feet. Electricity and water, et cetera, are all back on. Food, rice in the shops, clean water.

So we have been trucking the rice we bought here, the clean water, the medicine down to the delta, and getting that aid through. And we have, thankfully, not had to hand that over to the government, though that was the early indication.

They trust the fact that we have 600 Burmese locals handing it over. So, I guess, in one sense, they see us as being an extension of what they're doing and saying, "We have it under control. We don't need outside help. We have the situation with the capacity to respond all within hand."

What we all know is that's just not the case.

RAY SUAREZ: It's been more than a week since the cyclone. Now that help has taken so long to get to so many of these communities, are people just waiting in place or are they trying to move to some place they think they have a better shot at getting help?

TIM COSTELLO: They're moving. They're coming up from the delta to where they hear there is aid, many of them very frail and sick and needing medicine. There are camps developing.

There hasn't been signs of great anger, which you'd expect. In some ways, they don't expect anything from government. And their own resilience and courage just to do what they can in foraging, drinking coconut milk, and whatever they can find is remarkable, and it's deeply moving.

But for our Burmese staff it's very frustrating. Many have been in tears, feeling guilty that they haven't reached people they know are desperate.

Lack of response tempts disease

RAY SUAREZ: If lots more people take to the roads, does that make your job harder?

TIM COSTELLO: Much harder. The truth is you have to queue for six hours for five-mile queues just to get gas. The road now has numbers of checkpoints where they're sending back anyone who's obviously a journalist or a foreign expat. They're saying it's the Myanmar government and locals alone who will really deliver this aid.

We don't have the helicopters and the planes and all the heavy lifting material that was so critical to respond massively in the tsunami. And it's very time consuming getting there.

And then, out of the main towns, you simply can't get there. The villages' roads are too destroyed. As the water recedes, they're damaged.

And now, as it's raining in Rangoon, we have the threat of monsoons compounding this and bringing on the onset of waterborne diseases. Already, we're seeing dysentery, diarrhea. We're seeing malaria and skin infections.

And we just pray the nightmare of cholera and typhoid doesn't break out, which would claim more lives.

Working in adverse conditions

RAY SUAREZ: And are we in a danger zone now that so many days have passed where the risks start to escalate more sharply?

TIM COSTELLO: There is no doubt that every hour, every day sees more people die. There's no doubt that this is a race against time.

Whilst we are grateful that the government, the military, have given us unrestricted access, our movements are still small and slow this many days afterwards.

We have never operated ever before in such an unusually narrow humanitarian space. And though we keep saying we are only here for humanitarian reasons, not for political reasons at all, convincing them that that is the case is very, very difficult.

RAY SUAREZ: How do you explain to an outsider the suspicion, the resentment of outsiders on the part of the government?

TIM COSTELLO: Well, clearly, this is a government that's been on the receiving end of international condemnation for many years. It's a government that has survived intact by not having real connection, diplomatic relations, really, with outsiders.

So when those same governments, Western governments say, "Now, we're genuinely just trying to help you," it's hardly surprising that there is a deep shadow of suspicion.

RAY SUAREZ: Tim Costello, good luck in your work. Thanks for joining us.

TIM COSTELLO: That's a pleasure.