UN relief aircraft land in Burma
But junta's leaders still not allowing aid from US
BANGKOK - Two UN transport planes loaded with cyclone relief supplies landed in Burma yesterday, as international leaders heightened pressure on the country's secretive military government to fully embrace foreign help. United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon tried unsuccessfully to telephone Burma's top general to press the case personally.
US military transports were standing by in Thailand to fly in more supplies. But no clearance arrived from Burma, where UN officials now estimate that 1.5 million people are in desperate need of help after last weekend's cyclone. Most of the survivors are still largely on their own.
"Burma has got to open itself up to a major international effort very soon if we are not to face a second disaster, where infectious disease and other problems start to take a significant toll," said Richard Horsey, a spokesman for the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
Despite hunger, food rioting, diarrhea outbreaks, and general desperation, Burma's military authorities continue to resist the kind of massive international relief that followed the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and the 2005 earthquake in Pakistan. The leaders are highly suspicious of the United States and other Western governments, which have condemned them as dictators.
Eric John, the American ambassador to Thailand, expressed chagrin at the continuing stalemate, saying sluggish bureaucracy could be partly to blame.
"It is very frustrating, if you look at the people's suffering," he said. "You have the tools at your fingertips to alleviate that suffering, and they are just not picking them up."
John said the United States thought it had received a green light yesterday morning to send in C-130 military transport aircraft carrying relief supplies. But Burmese authorities later made it clear that no permission had been granted.
In New York, UN officials said that Ban had tried to call Senior General Than Shwe, the head of Burma's military and government, but that repeated attempts had failed. Ban also urged postponement of a constitutional referendum across the country in order to focus all resources on the disaster. This week, the government said it would delay the vote scheduled for Saturday by two weeks in the cyclone zone but proceed with it as scheduled in other parts of the country.
John Holmes, the chief UN emergency relief coordinator, said only two World Food Program officials had been issued visas to enter the country, leaving more than 40 UN relief workers stranded in Bangkok, the capital of neighboring Thailand. Holmes said that two Asian disaster response officials were allowed into the country, but that two others whose entry had been cleared Wednesday were turned back at the last minute.
At the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said that the US military is poised to "save a lot of lives" in Burma, and that the tragedy is being compounded by the junta's failure to allow American forces to provide assistance.
US Navy ships were unloading helicopters in Thailand that could reach Burma with relief supplies in a matter of hours, and six C-130 transport planes were available to provide emergency aid, Gates said. Three or four ships began a five-day journey to a location off Burma to be available to offer aid.
Gates said the US military could not act without Burmese government permission, but a State Department official said that "anything that might have a positive impact is being looked at and is being discussed," including unauthorized airdrops.
Despite the barriers, the United Nations got two planes into the country yesterday, both chartered by the World Food Program. One - loaded with 20 tons of ready-to-eat high-energy biscuits, six portable warehouses, and eight large emergency medical kits - had sat for two days in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, waiting for clearance.
In Rangoon, Burma's largest city, officials repeatedly told the World Food Program that the airlift had a green light. But that word did not reach Burma's civil aviation authorities, who delayed giving the pilot clearance to land. The plane stayed on the ground before finally taking off. A second World Food Program plane landed yesterday, and two more were due by today.