Despite the colossal devastation the country has experienced in the wake of the Nargis cyclone, Myanmar's ruling military junta is still fighting shy of foreign aid.
For years they have been running an authoritarian regime, with little accountability to anyone. And in order to ward off criticism from the West, they have made it extremely difficult, if not impossible altogether, for outsiders to enter the country and find out what is happening.
AdvertisementThe government says last week's cyclone killed 22,000 people, but the top U.S. envoy in the country says the death toll may exceed 100,000. Thousands are without food, shelter and clean water, and aid workers say boats and helicopters are needed to reach remote areas.
As many as 6 million people lived in the Irrawaddy Delta, the low-lying region that bore the brunt of the storm. More than 2,000 square miles of land are under water.
Still the government is scared of allowing aid workers to directly engage in relief work for two reasons - one, the outside world might then come to know of the appalling conditions in the country and, two, Myanmarese might become emboldened by the entry of a large number of foreigners and agitations could become uncontrollable.
Hence the government seems to be doing whatever it can to ward off relief work by outside agencies, even if it means people would stand to suffer more.
Two planes that landed Friday morning in Rangon carrying 38 tons of high-energy biscuits, medical kits and other items were seized by officials at Yangon International Airport.
The cargo is enough to feed 95,000 people, remarked angrily Tony Banbury, the World Food Programme's Regional Director for Asia.
"We off-loaded the food, and then the authorities refused us permission to take that food away.
"We were told we needed a special letter from the Minister of Social Welfare. We hand-delivered a request to him. The answer back was 'No, you can't have the food.'
"That food is now sitting on the tarmac doing no good."
Under U.N. rules, the organization must control and distribute its aid supplies.
"I'm furious. This is unacceptable," Banbury said.
As the delivery of aid supplies lags, the possibility of diseases such as malaria rises, medical authorities say.
Friday's move by the Myanmar military government comes one day before a national constitutional referendum that would strengthen the power of the military junta.
The government delayed voting in areas most ravaged by last Saturday's cyclone, but, despite urging by U.N. General-Secretary Ban Ki-moon, refused to cancel the balloting countrywide. Ban told authorities it may be "prudent" to focus their resources on emergency response efforts.
Political observers note that Myanmar has been isolated from outside influences since the military began ruling the country in 1962.
Referring to the government's actions on Friday, Banbury said, "This is another example of them actively getting in the way of relief getting to the victims."
Asked whether the move would jeopardize future U.N. aid flights, Banbury said, "absolutely, from our perspective, it shuts them down."
One senior U.S. military official told CNN that the United States was presenting Myanmar with an aid plan that would minimize the presence of American troops on the ground.
The United States is proposing that C-130s fly into the Myanmar carrying U.N. supplies. The planes would drop supplies off and then turn around and leave. But they would conduct as many flights as possible.
The United States is also proposing that Navy helicopters already in Thailand and on board U.S. Navy ships in the region fly supplies to remote areas. The helicopters would conduct low-level flights and air-drop the supplies but not touch the ground.
Four U.S. Navy ships are now moving to a region offshore Myanmar. They are the USS Essex, USS Juneau, USS Harpers Ferry and USS Mustin. Some U.S. Marines are ashore in Thailand for an exercise but could readily be moving to relief operations.
Paul Risley, a spokesman for the U.N. World Food Program, told CNN the agency had never encountered such resistance to offers of help in such a grave humanitarian crisis.