U.S. Frustrated By Myanmar Junta's Aid Limits

U.S. Frustrated By Myanmar Junta's Aid Limits
May 17th, 2008  
Team Infidel

Topic: U.S. Frustrated By Myanmar Junta's Aid Limits

U.S. Frustrated By Myanmar Junta's Aid Limits
New York Times
May 17, 2008
Pg. 5
By Helene Cooper and Thom Shanker
WASHINGTON — Two weeks after a devastating cyclone smashed ashore in Myanmar, the United States is facing the limits of its clout, at least in dealing with a junta that human rights advocates say is putting its own survival before that of a storm-ravaged population.
The Bush administration’s calls for Myanmar to throw open its borders to international assistance have gone unheeded, even as the government of Myanmar almost doubled the official death toll to 78,000 people on Friday, with 55,917 missing and 19,359 injured, up steeply from just 1,403 previously listed as injured.
The United Nations estimates that more than 100,000 people have died, and the Red Cross has put the number as high as 128,000. But relief officials say their figures can be only rough estimates, given the scattering of bodies by towering waves, the chaos as people have sought food and shelter, and the exclusion of most foreigners from the hardest-hit areas. On Friday, heavy rains hampered efforts to deliver aid.
The military junta still insists that it can handle relief operations on its own, and it is rebuffing any offers to transport aid directly to the affected areas. The United States and its close European allies had considered requesting United Nations authorization for a relief mission even without approval of the military authorities in Myanmar. But they dropped the plan after it became clear that China would veto any Security Council resolution calling for “humanitarian intervention” in Myanmar.
Instead, the United States is now relying on what administration officials acknowledge is the excruciatingly slow trickle of humanitarian aid that American officials have so far persuaded the junta to allow into the country.
There is also a modest amount of supplies from a number of nations and relief groups, but aid workers say that the combined total is only a small portion of what is needed. They say that if emergency supplies do not reach survivors soon, many more could die from disease and starvation.
The American military has assembled a considerable number of ships, helicopters, transport airplanes and marines in the region to assist in cyclone relief if the government of Myanmar grants approval.
But American officials said Friday that the Myanmar government had continued to deny requests for permission to bring in assistance by helicopters, which can reach areas inland from the coast and help distribute the supplies across the country, and that it had approved inbound flights by fewer than 20 cargo planes.
At a closed meeting of the United Nations General Assembly on Friday, France criticized Myanmar for barring a French naval vessel from delivering 1,500 tons of aid to the hard-hit Irrawaddy Delta. The French ambassador, Jean-Maurice Ripert, said he was responding to the Myanmar envoy’s accusation that France had sent a “warship” to the region.
The absence of the United Nations’ legal approval for ferrying food, medicine and shelter into Myanmar has left the Bush administration in a bind. To avert a humanitarian catastrophe, the administration is having to tiptoe, so as not to offend the sensibilities of a military junta that Washington has condemned in the past, lest the junta put an end to even the anemic flow of aid it has allowed so far.
Even discussions about whether to pursue sanctions against Myanmar in the United Nations have been put on hold, a senior administration official said, “because we have to balance the need for further political pressure against what little progress we’re making on the ground.”
Tom Malinowski, the Washington director of the group Human Rights Watch, said the international community was walking a tightrope. “We get a tiny foothold for humanitarian aid, and for fear of losing that hold, we operate on the junta’s terms,” he said. “Nobody wants to lose the 30 visas they gave us.”
Administration officials and diplomats say the focus, for now, is on negotiating with the government of Myanmar to allow a greater number of aid flights. Six flights landed in Yangon on Friday, including four C-130 military cargo planes, bringing the total airlifts to 17, carrying about 400,000 pounds of supplies.
Maj. Stewart Upton of the Marine Corps, a Pentagon spokesman, said the emergency relief included water, blankets, hygiene kits, insecticide-treated bed nets to protect against malaria, plastic sheeting for shelter, rice, other food and medical supplies.
Two of the six flights bypassed the junta and went directly to nongovernmental organizations, the senior administration official said, but the cargo on the other four flights went to Myanmar’s military junta. “At least we’re headed in the right direction, albeit slowly,” the official said. Both President Bush and his wife, Laura, have been personally engaged in the Myanmar issue, administration officials said, but one official said that beyond them, there was no single high-ranking American official who had taken charge of America’s response to the cyclone.
Christopher R. Hill, the assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, has been consumed with his efforts to negotiate a North Korea nuclear deal, while R. Nicholas Burns, the State Department’s former under secretary for political affairs, has left the government, with no successor in place.
Henrietta H. Fore, the administrator of the United States Agency for International Development, has been criticized for appearing in a photo on the airfield in Yangon, smiling as she shook hands with a Myanmar official. Human Rights advocates said such photos would almost certainly be used by the junta as propaganda.
There has been some discussion, a second senior administration official said, of whether the United States and France should take measures against Chevron and the French oil and gas company Total for their work on a natural gas pipeline in southern Myanmar, from which the military junta derives much of its wealth. American sanctions against Myanmar ban most companies from working there, but Chevron owns a 28 percent stake in the pipeline, which is operated by Total.
The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that so far, talk of suspending Chevron’s payments to Myanmar, formerly Burma, had not gone very far.
About a dozen American cargo aircraft, mostly C-130 short-range aircraft but also some longer-range C-17s, are in the area, along with about a dozen heavy-lift and medium-lift helicopters. A number of Navy warships are in the waters off Myanmar, including the Essex, which can produce 50,000 gallons of fresh water a day, while the Harpers Ferry and Juneau each produce 10,000 gallons of fresh water a day.
The ships also carry amphibious landing craft that can move onto battered shores and can carry personnel and supplies to remote locations inaccessible by road. American military officials pledge that the assistance comes with no strings attached, and that American forces will leave as soon as the aid mission is over.
“There is absolutely more we could do, if only the Burmese government would permit us to do it,” said Geoff Morrell, the Pentagon press secretary. “And that is why our government has been working with other governments in the region to try to persuade the Burmese military, the leadership of that nation, to put their pride aside and let our troops come in with the aid that their people so desperately need.”
Mr. Morrell noted that there was “no discussion of unilateral action whatsoever.”
Seth Mydans contributed reporting from Bangkok, and Warren Hoge from the United Nations.

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