Myanmar's military rulers are creating serious complications in the effort to aid survivors of last Saturday's cyclone that devastated the region. More than 60,000 people are dead or missing, and international aid organizations fear the toll could surpass 100,000 if the ruling junta does not allow humanitarian shipments to cross the borders.
The U.S. State Department says it has gotten the go-ahead to send one plane carrying food and supplies on Monday, and several U.N. deliveries are scheduled for this weekend. But the reclusive government is refusing to allow foreign relief experts into the country.
On Friday, the junta took control of two planeloads of 38 tons of high-energy biscuits — enough to feed 95,000 people — that were delivered by the United Nations, according to Paul Risley, a spokesman for the U.N. World Food Program in Bangkok.
"We are working very closely with the ministries, with the government officials that we know, to ensure that those biscuits are part of an effective measure to bring food now to the people who need it," Risley tells NPR's Michele Norris.
After the shipments were seized, the WFP said it would suspend all aid flights into the country. The agency later said it would resume flights on Saturday while it negotiates with Myanmar's military.
The WFP has 240 national and international staff workers on the ground in the country. On Friday morning, Risley says, they began setting up a food hub in Labuta Township, one of the areas hardest hit by Cyclone Nargis.
"Slowly but surely, we are able to increase our knowledge of what the survivors of the cyclone need right now," Risley says. "The challenge is literally a race against time to persuade the government that we can work with them."
Humanitarian experts generally work within a 10-day window to get aid to survivors of a natural disaster. After that point, survivors may be forced to resort to drinking polluted water, increasing the risk of waterborne illnesses such as cholera and dysentery.
"In any country, I think by the sixth day afterwards there would be international assistance available and present and ready to help the people who are most in need," Risley says. "But because of politics, because of history, because of the way people look at different boundaries and borders, there is still a great challenge and a great difficulty in getting something as simple as a biscuit to a man or a woman or child who have been waiting since Saturday."