Experts to gauge cyclone survivors' needs

Get Burma access as junta is said to quiet dissenters

The UN estimates more than 1 million cyclone survivors, like these children in Burma's Irrawaddy Delta, still need help. The UN estimates more than 1 million cyclone survivors, like these children in Burma's Irrawaddy Delta, still need help. (KHIN MAUNG WIN/AFP/Getty Images)
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Associated Press / June 11, 2008

RANGOON, Burma - Hundreds of experts began assessing the needs of cyclone victims yesterday as the country's military junta finally gave them access five weeks after the disaster.

But that improved access was undermined by reports the isolationist government had arrested 18 survivors who were on their way to the United Nations office in the commercial capital of Rangoon to plead for help.

Some 250 experts from the UN, the Burmese government, and Southeast Asian nations headed into the Irrawaddy delta on trucks, boat and helicopters for a village-by-village survey, the United Nations said.

Over 10 days, they will determine how much food, clean water, and temporary shelter the 2.4 million survivors need along with the cost of rebuilding houses and schools and reviving the agrarian economy.

"It has taken quite a long time but this shows the government is on board by its commitment to facilitate the relief operation and the scaling up that people are asking for," said Amanda Pitt, a UN spokeswoman in Bangkok.

The United Nations estimates more than 1 million of the storm's survivors, mostly in the delta, still need help. Cyclone Nargis killed more than 78,000 people in impoverished Burma.

The information collected will be released in a report next month by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and should motivate more countries to donate to the relief operation, Pitt said.

"Many donors said they were ready and willing to provide funding for relief operations and logistics but they wanted more access and more comprehensive assessments," she said.

The ruling junta has been sharply criticized by foreign governments and aid agencies for its ineptness in handling the disaster. It also has come under fire particularly for forcing survivors from camps and allegedly dumping them in their destroyed villages.

Authorities detained 18 women and children yesterday as they walked to UN offices to complain about not receiving any government assistance, according to an official who refused to be identified for fear of retaliation by the leadership.

The group from Dagon township on the outskirts of Rangoon was bundled into a waiting police car and remained in detention, witnesses said.

Pitt said she was unaware of the arrests.

The criticism of the junta's aid effort comes on top of longstanding concerns about its poor record on human rights, including its detention of Nobel Peace Prize laureate and pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

Yesterday, the junta released 15 members of Suu Kyi's party who were detained last month for demanding her freedom, a party spokesman said.

Suu Kyi has been held under house arrest for more than 12 of the past 18 years. Last month, the government extended her detention by another year.

The European Union's envoy to Burma, Piero Fassino, said yesterday that the focus on humanitarian aid for cyclone victims "cannot sideline the importance of political problems that are still there."

Repeated attacks on the junta's rights record have fueled an intense xenophobia among the generals. That suspicion of foreigners has contributed to the junta barring most international aid groups from the delta until now and rebuffing offers from the US military to help in the relief effort.

The country's top leader, Senior General Than Shwe, promised UN Secretary Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon last month that he would improve access but until now only a trickle of foreign aid workers and relief supplies had reached survivors.

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