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UN Suspends Aid to Burma


U.N. officials say they have suspended aid shipments to Burma after the military government seized all of the food and equipment that had been flown in by the World Food Program. The latest development in the unfolding crisis, came as the military government continued is turning away relief workers trying to organize assistance for the thousands of victims of last week's deadly cyclone. The official death toll remains at nearly 23,000 but could go higher. U.N. agencies say as many as 1.5 million people were severely affected by the storm. VOA's Luis Ramirez reports from our Southeast Asia Bureau in Bangkok.

Friday was another day of waiting for the hundreds of relief workers who are standing by in Bangkok for visas from the Burmese government. Frustration mounted as Burma's military leadership announced - through a state-run newspaper - that it was not accepting rescue teams from foreign countries. News reports Friday said the Burmese authorities turned away a rescue team that landed on a relief flight from Qatar.

The government says Burma is receiving relief aid and distributing it "with its own resources." State television shows images of Burmese soldiers handing out aid packages in some townships.

Sources inside the country, however, say little of the aid that has been trickling in aboard U.N. and other flights appears to be making it to the people who need it most - those in the Irawaddy Delta where entire towns were wiped out and where the vast majority of the deaths occurred. Reports from the scene say many people there have yet to receive any aid whatsoever since the disaster struck on May third, and some are dying for lack of supplies and medical attention.

Hundreds of tons of food, purified water, plastic sheeting, medicine, blankets, mosquito netting, and other supplies have been sitting in stockpiles around the world, waiting for permission from the Burmese authorities to enter the country.

Bill Berger leads the U.S. Disaster Assistance Response Team, whose members are waiting for visas in Bangkok. He says it is critical for personnel to go in along with the aid.

"If we don't know that the supplies can get out of the airport, sending supplies in and just letting them land at the airport can be a problem. It can cause a logistics difficulty," he said. "We want to make sure that we're able to receive those supplies and get them into a distribution channel that gets them out quickly and effectively to the people most in need in this situation."

One of the main concerns is that aid is distributed equitably. Critics say Burma's military government in the past has diverted assistance to the families of the military elite and their supporters.

Analysts say Burma's generals are reluctant to accept international aid teams for fear that a large foreign presence may foment unrest among a population that is strained by political repression and poverty.

The Burmese junta's refusal to allow access to relief teams is causing frustration even among its friends. Thailand, one of Burma's top trading partners, has been brokering efforts to get the Burmese junta to cooperate. Thai Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej had been scheduled to go to Burma on Sunday to discuss relief efforts, but announced on Friday he had canceled the trip after the Burmese government said it would not accept relief workers.

Despite the disaster, the military leadership plans to go ahead with a constitutional referendum that is scheduled for Saturday in parts of the country. The junta on Friday urged citizens to vote for the constitution, which the generals say is a step toward returning Burma to democracy. Critics call the referendum a sham because the drafting process excluded the opposition. They say the referendum is merely meant to prolong the military's 46-year grip on power.