U.S. Navy forced to give up on Burma relief

Thursday, June 5, 2008

The seal of the US Navy

The United States Navy was forced to withdraw from its Cyclone Nargis relief efforts in Burma/Myanmar today due to the continued refusal of the ruling State Peace and Development Council government to allow the delivery of aid. Four U.S. naval ships were ordered to depart from the area on Thursday. After 15 failed attempts to convince the ruling military junta to allow U.S. helicopters to deliver much needed supplies to areas such as the Irrawaddy Delta, Admiral Timothy J. Keating, the head of the U.S. Pacific Command, indicated that they were left with no choice but to leave.

"I am both saddened and frustrated to know that we have been in a position to help ease the suffering of hundreds of thousands of people ... but have been unable to do so because of the unrelenting positions of the Burma military junta," Keating said via his headquarters. He said that the U.S. would still be willing to offer help if the junta simply allowed them in.

The British and French navies have also been forced to withdraw due to the junta's unwillingness to allow them to provide assistance to cyclone victims. United Nations (UN) Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon had been previously assured by the ruling Burmese generals that relief workers would be allowed to help, but reports indicate this has still not happened on the ground. The UN, in its latest report on the situation, noted that Burma was faced with a "serious lack of sustained humanitarian assistance for the affected populations."

I am both saddened and frustrated to know that we have been in a position to help ease the suffering of hundreds of thousands of people . . . but have been unable to do so because of the unrelenting positions of the Burma military junta

—Admiral Timothy J. Keating

Foreign aid agencies already in place and trying to help victims have reported that they continue to face problems in delivering large volumes of relief supplies in the affected regions. The U.S. naval ships had 22 heavy-lift helicopters that would have been ideally suited to the task. "Important heavy-lifting capability in the delta would have been a standard operating procedure for relief agencies in the response," said Paul Risley of the United Nations World Food Program. The UN group has been trying to get ten civilian helicopters to fill the role in the interim, but the Burmese authorities have still not allowed nine of the civilian aircraft to be used in the relief efforts.

To date, the Burmese military has allowed 106 airlifts of foreign supplies to occur, but only into Rangoon, the largest city in the nation. Those delivered supplies are slated to be forwarded to the areas devastated by the cyclone. However, the ruling junta has refused to allow inland flights of foreign military helicopters to deliver relief aid. The junta believes they have sufficient abilities to deliver the resources but foreign analysts believe that the group does not wish to demonstrate to the Burmese people that it needs outside help. Doctors Without Borders has said that the relief efforts to date are not enough, and that many remote areas have received no assistance.

The UN determined that Burma may need relief efforts for a year. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization has found that 495,000 acres of rice production areas have been damaged out of a total of 2.5 million acres. The areas are either still under too much water to sustain crops, or have been contaminated by seawater during Cyclone Nargis. According to Risley, the year-long importing of rice would be required as the damage was done just before the normal planting season. "This year's crop will not meet requirements," Risley said. "The losses to the production of rice are very deep. It would be typical for the WFP to provide food rations through the next harvest, which could be a year away."

Access by foreigners to Burma has been generally restricted since the cyclone. Visas and travel permission to affected areas have been limited by the government. The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement reported that "the small number of visas and the short duration of travel permits for access" into the areas in need of aid "continue to impose serious constraints on the effectiveness of overall operations." The World Health Organization has said that, as of yet, there appears to be no "second wave" of deaths in the wake of the blocked relief efforts, which may be a sign of hope.

78,000 people were killed by the cyclone. To date, another 56,000 remain unaccounted for, according to Burma's government.