Myanmar junta accused of stealing aid

Yangon, May 13:

The UN said today that only a tiny portion of international aid is reaching Myanmar’s cyclone victims, as reports emerged that the country’s military regime is hoarding higher-quality foreign aid for itself and doling out rotten food.

“There is obviously still a lot of frustration that this aid effort hasn’t picked up pace 10 days after the cyclone hit,” said Richard Horsey, the spokesman for the UN humanitarian operation in Bangkok.

Cyclone Nargis devastated Myanmar’s Irrawaddy delta on May 3, leaving about 62,000 people dead or missing according to the government count. The UN has suggested the death toll is likely to be more than 100,000.

The UN said the World Food Programme is getting in 20 per cent of the food needed because of bottlenecks, logistics problems and government-imposed restrictions.

“That is a characterisation of the programme as a whole. We are not reaching enough people quickly enough,” Horsey told The Associated Press.

The military - which has ruled the country with an iron fist since 1962 - has taken control of most aid sent by other countries including the United States.

The regime told a US military commander who delivered the first American shipment yesterday that storm victims’ basic needs are being fulfilled - and that “skillful humanitarian workers are not necessary.”

But the junta’s words and actions have only served to back up complaints that the military is appropriating the aid for itself.

A longtime foreign resident of Myanmar’s biggest city, Yangon, told the AP in Bangkok by telephone that angry government officials have complained to him about the military misappropriating aid.

He said the officials told him that quantities of the high-energy biscuits rushed into Myanmar on the World Food Programme’s first flights were sent to a military warehouse.

They were exchanged by what the officials said were “tasteless and low-quality” biscuits produced by the Industry Ministry to be handed out to cyclone victims, the foreign resident said. He said it was not known what has been happening to the high quality food - whether it is being sold on the black market or consumed by the military.

CARE Australia’s country director in Myanmar, Brian Agland, said members of his local staff brought back some of the rotting rice that’s being distributed in the delta.

The authoritarian junta has barred nearly all foreigners experienced in managing such catastrophes from going to the delta west of Yangon, and is expelling those who have managed to go in.