Myanmar People Still Desperate for Supplies
RACHEL MARTIN, host:
The death toll in Myanmar is now at 28,000, according to state authorities. Tens of thousands of people have been without enough food or clean water for days now. The cyclone slammed Myanmar last Saturday, and only today, nine days later, has the first full plane of U.S. aid been allowed in to the country.
The C-130 military plane landed in Myanmar around two o'clock p.m. local time. It was loaded with water, mosquito netting, blankets and other supplies, and while the military junta that runs Myanmar is finally allowing some aid to trickle in, it's not letting in the international aid experts needed to distribute it. If aid doesn't reach those in need, some aid officials say the death toll could end up being more than a million.
Joining us now for an update on the crisis in Myanmar is Matthias Gihbauer. He is a reporter with Global News Radio, and we find him in Bangkok, Thailand, which has become the hub for international aid to Myanmar. Matthias, thanks for being here. You were at the border yesterday between Thailand and Myanmar. What did you see there?
Mr. MATTHIAS GIHBAUER (Reporter, Global News Radio): Well, the situation at the borders is very obscure in many ways. What we have seen is that the first land transport of UNHTR went through the border after days of negotiations with the junta. One of my colleagues was over there on the other side, and what she saw was pretty alarming. The whole transport was confiscated by the Burmese army the moment it crossed the border.
And what we see besides, is that for black-market dealers, it's very easy to cross the border. They make a very good business. They told us very openly that for them it's like the last couple of days have been golden days, because they bring all the things Burmese people need and obviously, you know, give it to them for very high prices. So, what we see at the border is the obscure result of the junta, who is doing this blockade against international aid but is, of course, accepting that other people make a very good business.
MARTIN: The military government there, the junta, says that it has welcomed the foreign aid, but not specifically relief workers. Journalists are also having a hard time getting in. You, yourself, are waiting for a visa. As we mentioned, the first U.S. plane of aid arrived today. Matthias, what good is the aid without the aid workers? Is there an indication that Myanmar's regime is equipped to distribute the aid properly, or is it going to sit in hangars?
Mr. GIHBAUER: All the signs we see and hear, and also from one of my colleagues who made it into the country, is that the Burmese military is not really able to distribute the goods. What is basically missing is, of course, helicopters, because what you need for this kind of stuff is helicopters to distribute aid to the region which is far away from Rangoon, actually. It's a couple of hundred of kilometers away.
So basically, the aid that is going to Rangoon now, we don't really know what is happening. I went to the airport this morning, and people from USAID tried to get on to the plane, trying to control what is happening to the aid. But in the end, they openly had to say - I mean, we have no other chance than bring this aid to Rangoon, but we don't know what happens with it.
MARTIN: The problem of getting visas - is the UN faring better in securing visas for their workers than smaller NGOs, or individual nation-states?
Mr. GIHBAUER: To this point, not at all. I talked to the World Food Programme just a couple of minutes ago, because the embassy just closed today, and the result was again, they didn't get a sufficient amount of visas. They brought in like small teams, but they always had problems to bring any kind of Westerners in.
A couple of days ago, the U.N. was able to send their fact-finding team, and they would let in a couple of Asian people, which, of course, I mean, the U.N. has Asian people, and also experts to assess the situation, but the one guy from Europe who was supposed to be sent with his team was rejected at the embassy. And no journalist got allowance to go in by today, at least here from Bangkok, and also many other aid people from Europe, and also from other counties were waiting for visas, and will now have to sit for another day here in Bangkok.
MARTIN: The situation is increasingly dire. The British aid group Oxfam said yesterday that the current death toll could multiply by up to 15 times because of the increase in disease and public-health disaster that becomes apparent after the cyclone. Can you explain a little bit more about what people there are warning of?
Mr. GIHBAUER: Clearly, what Oxfam is doing is assessing the situation - also here from Bangkok. I mean, they have a couple of informants inside the country, as we have, and what they see is that the army is not really able, for example, to bury the bodies, and there are still thousands of bodies who flood in to rivers.
And clearly they are pretty alarmed about all kinds of infections. I mean, just like one diplomat told me today, that every day which this aid is going to be delayed will possibly result in a couple of thousands more deaths. But as far as we understand, the junta is accepting this danger just because of their kind of isolation policy towards the West.
MARTIN: There was a big blow to the humanitarian effort yesterday, when a Myanmar Red Cross boat carrying rice and drinking water for victims of the cyclone sank. Can you explain to us some of the details of that story?
Mr. GIHBAUER: Basically, the Red Cross did a very dangerous attempt to deliver some aid to the southern part of the delta. So, they basically hired a boat, and were going with a local driver, and by accident, he hit a tree, which was covered by water, and the boat sank. But what we see through this is, like, that the delivery of aid, even if the Burmese government will open up the borders in the next couple of days, is extremely difficult.
The U.S. has stationed some helicopters around the border at local airports already, but U.S. diplomats told me that they don't think that they will get permission for these helicopters, and even for the Thai army it will be difficult, because the Thai army is seen by the Burmese government at least partly cooperating with the United States.
So, the delivery of aid will be extremely difficult, and I don't really see how it should work out in the next couple of days. We will see. Maybe there will be a change in Burma, but I mean, we were talking about a change in policy in Burma for at least 'til last Thursday, and everyone was hopeful and optimistic but somehow, you know, if you talk to all the health organizations, I mean, this optimism is really fading.
MARTIN: We heard about a referendum. In the midst of all this chaos and the crisis after the cyclone, the junta in Myanmar has actually gone ahead with an election, correct? People apparently went to the polls to vote on a constitutional referendum. It wasn't even - it wasn't called off. Can you explain what this referendum was about? It strengthened the power of the military junta, I understand, but what, specifically, was on the table?
Mr. GIHBAUER: Basically, I mean, this referendum, where people could say yes or no, was all about, in theory, to pave the way towards democracy. I mean, that is the official language of the Burmese government. The reality, by the referendum, basically they set up, like, a timeline to go democracy, but for example, I mean, all the big figures in the opposition will not be able to take part in the next election. So for the junta, it was very important to holds this referendum and not wait.
MARTIN: Matthias Gihbauer is a reporter with Global News Radio. Matthias, thank you very much for being with us.
Mr. GIHBAUER Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.