BANGKOK, Thailand - Foreign aid workers have begun reaching remote areas of Myanmar hardest hit by the May 2-3 cyclone, relief agencies said yesterday.
These first admissions of foreign workers, issued over the past two days, breach the barrier erected by the government that had delayed delivery of supplies to more than a million people in the remote Irrawaddy River delta.
The opening comes more than three weeks after the cyclone, which left 135,000 people dead or missing. The United Nations estimates that 1.5 million survivors deep in the Irrawaddy delta have not yet received any aid.
The permissions follow an agreement announced Friday by Ban Ki Moon, the U.N. secretary-general, after a meeting in Myanmar with the leader of that nation's junta, Senior General Than Shwe.
Almost lost yesterday in the clamor over efforts to assist the stricken victims of the cyclone, the military government extended the year-to-year house arrest of the charismatic pro-democracy leader, Aung San Suu Kyi. Suu Kyi, 62, has been confined for 12 of the past 18 years, and the extensions of her term have become an annual routine.
About 20 of her supporters were arrested yesterday as they attempted to march to her house, according to her party, the National League for Democracy.
Although her house arrest has been at the top of the U.N. agenda in its dealings with the junta for many years, Ban did not raise the topic in his meetings with Myanmar leaders.
"We must think about people just now, not politics," he said.
At an aid-pledging conference Sunday in Myanmar, international donors offered tens of millions of dollars in relief, but most made them contingent on official access for foreign staff into remote areas.
"The initial indications are that international staff are able to get out and things are looking quite positive," said Richard Horsey, a spokesman for the U.N. disaster relief office in Bangkok. "But before celebrating victory, we should keep an eye on it."
He said the U.N. World Food Program, UNICEF and a number of international organzations, including Doctors Without Borders, had sent international staff into affected areas. Doctors Without Borders said its teams had reached remote delta areas where people had not eaten for three days: "Thousands of people have not seen any aid workers and still have not received any assistance."
But the numbers are still small, the permissions uneven and the procedures still uncertain. "We are not naive enough to believe that a policy guideline given at the top will be translated into practice at all levels going into the delta," said Surin Pitsuwan, general secretary of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which together with the United Nations is coordinating the relief effort. "We are prying open," he said at a news conference. "Step by step."
The ruling generals, widely condemned in the West and in the U.N. for political and human rights abuses, have resisted outside help in cyclone recovery, fearing it could undermine their control.
While apparently opening its door to international donors, the military government has refused permission to U.S., French and British warships loaded with supplies just outside its territorial waters.
In denying entry, the government has said it fears that any such aid from Western powers would have "strings attached." However, it has allowed more than 60 U.S. Air Force flights to bring supplies to the Yangon airport.
Paul Risley, a spokesman for the U.N. World Food Program in Bangkok, said, "The opening provided by Friday's meeting allows us to ramp up significantly our efforts."
Since Saturday, he said, four staff members have traveled in the delta. Yesterday seven additional visas had been issued as the agency increases its presence.
"At present we have 29 national staff in the delta, and they've been our entire presence for the past three weeks," he said. "But in order to really scale up the size of food assistance and delivery across the delta region, we need to bring in experienced international humanitarian relief workers."
The delivery of aid has already accelerated, he said, with chartered boats and barges and a fleet of trucks loaded with rice, high-energy biscuits and ready-to-eat food. The government has given the WFP permission to deploy 10 helicopters. Risley said one had arrived in Yangon and the others were being brought in transport planes from South Africa, Uganda and Ukraine.