Myanmar Slow to Accept International Aid

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The Bush administration is offering aid relief to victims of a devastating cyclone in Myanmar, where the death toll could reach more than 10,000.

First lady Laura Bush, a prominent voice for the White House on human rights in Myanmar, promised help to those affected and blasted the Myanmar government for not doing more to warn people of the storm.

"It's troubling that many of the Burmese people learned of this impending disaster only when foreign outlets, such as Radio Free Asia and Voice of America, sounded the alarm," she said Monday. "Although they were aware of the threat, Burma's state-run media failed to issue a timely warning to citizens in the storm's path."

The U.S. State Department has authorized an emergency contribution of $250,000 so far. Other surrounding countries are also offering assistance, but are waiting for the Myanmar goverment to allow them entry.

Relief Organizations Respond, Await Approval

U.N. agencies and independent humanitarian groups like Operation Blessing International also rushed Monday to prepare assistance for victims. OBI is teaming up with German partner, Humedica, in a medical mission to aid cyclone victims. All groups, however, must wait for formal approval from Myanmar's military regime.

The Myanmar government indicated a willingness to accept outside help, but details on how aid would be delivered were still to be worked out, said Elisabeth Byrs of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

"The U.N. team has been activated and is ready to supplement the effort of the government in responding to this disaster as soon as they receive visas," Byrs said.

Some potential donors said government and aid groups apparently would need individual approval to deliver supplies to Myanmar.

Disaster across Myanmar

Nearly 4,000 are confirmed dead and hundreds of thousands of people are without shelter and drinking water in the military-ruled country, a United Nations official said on Monday.

Tropical Cyclone Nargis tore through the Irrawaddy delta at with 120-mph winds. Residents of Yangon, the country's capital, were forced to use candles instead of electricity, to bathe in city lakes, and to hack their way through streets blocked by trees with axes and knives.

"The Irrawaddy delta was hit extremely hard not only because of the wind and rain but because of the storm surge," said Chris Kaye, the U.N.'s acting humanitarian coordinator in Yangon. "The villages there have reportedly been completely flattened."

The World Responds

Some, including those in Yangoon, complained that the 400,000-strong military was doing little to help victims after Saturday's storm.

"The response to the cyclone is just the most recent example of the junta's failure to meet its people's basic needs," Mrs. Bush said. "The regime has dismantled systems of agriculture, education and health care. This once wealthy nation now has the lowest per capita GDP in Southeast Asia."

The military could only be found clearing streets where the ruling elite resided, leaving residents to cope on their own in most other areas.

Buddhist monks from the city's many monasteries joined with residents to help clear roads of tree trunks and branches torn off by the cyclones 120 mph winds.

Democracy in Burma

Despite the cyclone, the government indicated that a referendum on the country's draft constitution would proceed as planned on May 10.

"It's only a few days left before the coming referendum and people are eager to cast their vote," the state-owned newspaper Myanma Ahlin said Monday.

Should the junta be perceived as failing disaster victims, voters who already hold the regime liable for ruining the economy and squashing democracy could take out their frustrations at the ballot box.

Myanmar, also known as Burma, has been under military rule since 1962. Its government has been widely criticized for human rights abuses and suppression of pro-democracy parties.

Last September, at least 31 people were killed and thousands more were detained when the military cracked down on peaceful protests led by Buddhist monks and democracy advocates.

The Forum for Democracy in Burma and other dissident groups outside of Myanmar urged the military junta Sunday to allow aid groups to operate freely in the wake of the cyclone.

Source: The Associated Press, Reuters, CBN News

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