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Myanmar’s Government Slowly Opens to Foreign Aid

May 28, 2008 at 6:25 PM EDT
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Weeks after Cyclone Nargis devastated portions of Myanmar, its reclusive government has slowly allowed small numbers of foreign aid workers to enter the country. U.N. Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs John Holmes updates the humanitarian situation.

RAY SUAREZ: Myanmar, the former Burma, opens the door a bit to foreign help after its deadly cyclone. Judy Woodruff has that story.

JUDY WOODRUFF: A handful of foreign relief workers are going into the Irrawaddy Delta now.

That opening, nearly a month after the cyclone, followed a Friday meeting between U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the leader of the military junta, General Than Shwe.

But how open will Myanmar’s rulers be to a large foreign presence in their country?

We hear more now from John Holmes, the U.N. under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs. He is just back from Myanmar.

Mr. Holmes, first of all, what is the latest that you can report to us on the situation there?

JOHN HOLMES, United Nations Under-Secretary-General: Well, the situation, in terms of international relief workers, is that I think the question of visas has been largely resolved. All the outstanding visas to get into the country for U.N. relief workers have now been granted.

And I think the position is improving a lot, also, for international nongovernmental organizations, like World Vision, or Oxfam, or Save the Children. So that’s good progress.

The key point is how far people are allowed into the worst-affected areas in the delta to actually do the work that they are paid for and that they have the experience and expertise for, to do the assessments, and to organize the relief effort as well as it can possibly be organized, given the need to reach so many people in such difficult conditions.

We’ve seen some progress there. As you said, there are international relief workers beginning to go into that area. There are no formal restrictions on numbers or nationality at the moment; there was a notification procedure that needs to be followed, and that takes a little bit of time.

But we’re still at the beginning of this process. We’re still exploring it. The early signs are encouraging, but what we want to see is full, rapid and durable implementation.

Nearly half have received aid

JUDY WOODRUFF: But you're saying they're being allowed into the country, but not into the area where help is most needed?

JOHN HOLMES: No, no. I said that they are being allowed into the area where help is most needed, as well. That's a process which is beginning. There are several people now already in the delta -- that is the worst-affected area -- from U.N. agencies, from international NGOs. That's happening.

As I say, there is a notification procedure. You need to say why you want to go there and how long for. But there are no restrictions other than that that we know of so far.

So that's what we're testing. And that's why we want to see it fully implemented.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So of the, what, 2.5 million people, we're told, who are homeless, help us understand, of that figure, how many have received help and how many still need to be reached

JOHN HOLMES: Well, it's very hard to be absolutely accurate about this and so you should treat all the numbers with a little bit of caution.

We think the international relief effort, together with some local NGOs and the Myanmar Red Cross, we have reached about a million people with something, not with everything they need, but with something.

If you add to that the government and Myanmar's own efforts and the bilateral aid that they've been able to give out, including from countries like the U.S., they must have reached another several hundred thousand, maybe another million, although there may be an overlap between those two figures.

So quite a lot of people have been reached already with something, but that still leaves a lot of people out there who've received little or nothing. We don't know exactly how many, and we don't know what condition they're in.

And that's one of the things we're desperate to find out with these experienced relief workers, to make sure we don't have any more unnecessary deaths from disease or starvation or whatever.

There's no evidence of that at the moment, but that's what we need to be sure about. We need to step up the relief effort very significantly to reach everybody who's in desperate need.

Logistics hamper efforts

JUDY WOODRUFF: And what's preventing help from getting to those other people?

JOHN HOLMES: Well, it's really a question of organization logistics. You have to understand that the terrain in which we're operating, down at the bottom of the delta, is very difficult.

A lot of places can only be reached by boat and small boat, at that. There are no roads. There weren't any roads even before the cyclone. It's very much an area of marshland and rivers and the river delta.

So organizing the aid effort down there, and getting it to the advance logistics points, and then on to small boats, and then to find everybody and reach everybody and give them what they need is a huge challenge.

Even if the cooperation would have been perfect, it would have been a huge challenge. The cooperation has not been perfect; that's made it more difficult. But that's the challenge we have now.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, one thing we've heard is we have a French military ship that has left the region. The U.S. military officials said today that they didn't believe they could wait much longer. They've been waiting for weeks and weeks and have not been given permission to get in.

What's your understanding of that?

JOHN HOLMES: It was very clear from the discussions we had with Senior General Than Shwe that they were extremely sensitive about military vessels like this coming into their ports and they were not going to accept that.

And I think that's why the French vessel, the Mistral, has now gone to Thailand to unload its cargo onto a civilian ship. And that will then go back to Yangon, the capital, to unload.

I think it's regrettable that that has to happen, but that's the reality we're dealing with. And I think the American ships will presumably have to come to a similar conclusion before long.

Government asserts itself

JUDY WOODRUFF: We're also hearing reports today, John Holmes, of the government forcing people to go back to the sites of their homes, even if they don't have a home to go back to.

JOHN HOLMES: That is, indeed, an area of particular concern. There are people in settlements and camps of different kinds. There are some government- organized camps. There are a lot more informal camps around monasteries or schools or other public buildings.

And there are these stories that people are being forced to go back when the conditions for them to return simply aren't there. They have no shelter, no food, and nothing to go back to.

What we're saying, very clearly -- as we do everywhere else -- the principles of this must be fully respected. Any return has to be voluntary. It has to be in consultation with the people concerned. They must not be pushed back. And the basic conditions must be there before they return.

And that's what we'll be pressing very hard on the government.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And separately, reports that the government is stopping Myanmar volunteers who are trying to deliver aid of their own to people in need, they're not only stopping them. They're impounding their cars. Have you seen these reports?

JOHN HOLMES: I'm not sure I've seen reports about impounding cars, but certainly reports that the authorities were keen to stop this happening in an uncontrolled way and they didn't want to encourage begging.

I think I saw also reports this morning that there was a more relaxed attitude now being taken to that. I very much hope so, because I think people who are volunteering to help other people should be encouraged, not discouraged.

At the same time, it is important to make sure that the aid effort is done in a systematic way, so that you actually reach those who are most in need who are not always those at the front of queues.

U.N. still pushing

JUDY WOODRUFF: What, then, is the focus of your efforts at the U.N. and the other agencies that you have any control or oversight over at this point? What are you most worried about at this point?

JOHN HOLMES: Well, what we're most worried about is that there could be more deaths for people who haven't been reached or are in very desperate conditions.

As I say, we don't know that for certain; that's one of the things we're trying to find out.

What we're trying to do is organize a proper pipeline of relief supplies, food, medical supplies, fresh water, to get down to the people in need and get the distribution organized at that sharp end, at that far end of the chain. That's the biggest challenge; that's what we're trying to do.

And that's what we're trying to work with the government and also with ASEAN, the organization of Myanmar's neighbors, to make sure we can overcome any remaining problems of cooperation and access and really get this really cooperation motoring as it should be.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you don't worry that it's too late for some of those people, because it's been, what, 26 days now?

JOHN HOLMES: Well, we are worrying. That's what I'm saying. We are worrying about that. And that's why we're trying to speed it up as much as possible.

There is no evidence at the moment that people are dying. There was no evidence of outbreaks of communicable diseases, other than the sort of normal background level of those diseases. But that's what we're monitoring as hard as we can.

And that's why we're trying to step up our efforts, to make sure that it's not too late for people and we can get to them, as many as we need to.

JUDY WOODRUFF: John Holmes, the United Nations under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs. Thank you very much.

JOHN HOLMES: Thank you.