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Cyclone Nargis Underscores Challenges in Delivering Aid to Burma


In May, Cyclone Nargis devastated much of Burma. It also demonstrated the weakness of the international community in trying to deal with the country. For weeks, the military government blocked efforts to help more than two million survivors of the storm. This final report, in a three-part series, looks at the challenge the international community faces in responding to the humanitarian crisis. Heda Bayron has this report, from producer Pros Laput.

The damage from Cyclone Nargis was quickly apparent. Some 140,000 people were dead or missing. Hundreds of thousands were homeless. And thousands of homes, schools, businesses and farms were destroyed. But the biggest challenge in helping survivors was not flooding or displacement. It was the military government. For weeks, it refused most international aid.

The U.S. Aircraft Carrier Essex, carrying helicopters and tons of water and food, waited off Burma's coast for more than three weeks. It waited for approval to start ferrying its cargo inland to the Irrawaddy Delta. Approval never came.

"That is truly unfortunate because these helicopters represented immediate heavy lift capacity in the area of the delta," said World Food Program spokesman Paul Risley.

Burma's government also sat on visa applications from the United Nations and humanitarian agencies.

It took pressure from the U.N. and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to persuade Burma to allow foreign aid workers to enter the country.

"The U.N. has had limited impact, not so much the effort," said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, who heads the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University in Thailand. "The effort is there. They made strident effort. But the outcome, the effects has been limited."

Two months after the disaster, people in the hard-hit Irrawaddy Delta still wait by the road for help. They are storing the meager donations they have received. They know it will take months to recover their lost crops and incomes.

Although the evidence proves otherwise, Burma's generals say the need for relief is now over.

On a recent visit to China, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice praised that country for reaching out for help in response to the May earthquake. Rice said an approach to Burma must be found.

China and India could provide one. Both have extensive diplomatic and economic ties to the government in Rangoon.

"It has been sad that the Burmese authorities have instead of making possible the international community response to their people, that they put barriers to that response," Secretary Rice said. "We will continue to talk to China and others who have influence."

Relief groups are still urging the country's generals to open up.

"The authorities of the country need to open up to an international relief effort," said Richard Horsey, spokesman for the United Nations Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. "There aren't enough boats, trucks, helicopters in the country to run the relief effort at the scale we need."

However, for years, Western governments have asked Beijing and New Delhi to help push Burma's military to allow political reforms, tolerate dissent and free jailed critics. So far, they have made little headway.

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