Burma’s ruling junta was on Friday night locked in a stand-off with the international community after flatly refusing to allow foreign aid workers into the country to tackle the impact of the recent cyclone disaster.
Amid clear indications that between 60,000 and 100,000 people are now dead or missing in the region, the Burmese junta said it was prepared to receive offers of aid from foreign sources, including the US.
However, to the dismay of the United Nations and international aid agencies, the Burmese regime insisted it would control the distribution of aid to the 1.5m people now believed to have been affected by the disaster.
The diplomatic wrangling became so fierce that at one point on Friday the UN announced it was suspending aid flights to the country claiming the supplies were being appropriated by the junta. The UN later relented.
There were other signs of a softening tone on both sides. Burma’s UN envoy, Kyaw Tint Swe, said his government would accept assistance from “any quarter”.
John Holmes, the UN’s humanitarian aid chief, said that, as in all disasters, the affected government would take the lead in responding to it. “But it is usual for countries struck by natural disasters to ask for help from the rest of the world.”
The US said it was pleased that Burma had given the green light for a US military C-130 cargo plane to fly to the country next Monday with aid. However, the UN believes the Burmese regime lacks the logistical ability to distribute the aid.
Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary-general, said he had been unable to speak to the Burmese leadership, despite repeated efforts to do so. Earlier Noeleen Hayzer, the top UN official in Asia, said: “The situation is getting critical and there is only a small window of opportunity if we are to avert the spread of diseases that could multiply the already tragic number of casualties.”
In what appeared to be a bid to get the regime to stop hindering the relief effort, the UNlaunched a $187m programme of emergency food and relief for Burma.
The appeal, launched in New York by Mr Holmes, said contributions by member states would be used to fund 10 UN agencies and nine charities working to relieve the suffering of the Burmese.
However, the amount of aid that has got into the country thus far has been severely limited. The UN believes that, as of last Wednesday, just 276,000 of the 1.5m cyclone survivors had received any relief supplies from UN agencies or nongovernmental organisations.
Some western governments are considering whether they can carry out humanitarian operations in the country without the consent of the Burmese regime.
“There is no substitute for the regime’s consent for letting in aid,” said one British official. “But if that consent is withheld, the alternative is that tens of thousands of people are left to die.”