International aid push for Myanmar sputters on visa restrictions

A massive international disaster-relief programme for cyclone-devastated Myanmar was being hindered Thursday, five days after the catastrophe, by red tape for UN aid workers' visas, officials said.

"A few visas are coming through, but the general picture is that a significant number of the key staff have not got their visas approved," said Richard Horsey, spokesman for the UN disaster response office in Bangkok, the dpa reported.

"Clearly, this is a concern because it is very important that those staff with disaster response experience and coordinating can deploy as quickly as possible," Horsey said. "What you basically need to get is a logistical pipeline that is big enough and running smoothly enough to channel humanitarian relief from outside the country to the people who need it."

Myanmar's military regime has appealed for international aid to cope with the massive destruction wrought by Cyclone Nargis, which smashed into central Myanmar late on May 2 and Saturday.

According to the government, nearly 23,000 people were killed and as many as 42,000 were missing with most of the victims in the Irrawaddy Delta. But Shari Villarosa, the US charge d'affairs in Yangon, and dissident groups on the Thai border said the death toll could reach 100,000.

Although aid has poured in from around the globe, the relief programme has been hampered by the government's refusal to waive visa requirements for aid workers and tardiness in granting visas to even the most critical UN experts.

The disaster has caught the ruling junta at a sensitive time politically.

The regime is holding a referendum Saturday aimed at winning popular approval for a constitution that promises to cement the military's dominant role in Myanmar politics.

Myanmar has been under military dictatorships since 1962. The current regime has earned itself pariah status among Western democracies for repeatedly crushing anti-government protests and refusing to hasten moves toward democracy.

Critics of the regime charged that it is deliberately hampering the granting of visas so it could claim the credit for relief work in the countryside.

"They are delaying visas for foreign aid workers, which is a clear sign that they want the materials but don't want the foreign workers," said Win Min, a lecturer on Myanmar affairs at Chiang Mai University in Thailand.

But the enormity of the disaster is likely to force the regime to loosen visa restrictions on aid workers or face the prospect of mounting casualties to hunger and disease.

"This is a critical moment for Myanmar's vulnerable populations," warned the UN Information Centre in Yangon. "In the next few days, assessments must be provided or thousands more could die."

The United Nations estimated that the cyclone has affected nearly 24 million people or the entire population in the worst-hit regions, which include Yangon, the former capital, which has a population of about 6 million.

"It is quickly becoming clear that the cyclone has caused unprecedented devastation in the affected areas," the UN centre said. The damage was especially severe in the Irrawaddy, Myanmar's traditional rice bowl.

"The low-lying delta region also suffered from the effects of a sizable storm surge, which is feared to have wiped out whole villages," it said.

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