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One month after cyclone, Burma still restricting aid workers' access

A month after Cyclone Nargis slammed into Burma, leaving at least 130,000 people dead or missing and more than 2.4 million homeless, the country's military regime is still restricting access to the worst-hit areas, international aid experts said Monday.

Plan to reopen schools may be 'premature'

One month after Cyclone Nargis slammed into Burma, leaving at least 130,000 people dead or missing and more than 2.4 million homeless, the country's reclusive military regime is still restricting access to the worst-hit areas, international aid experts said Monday.

"Access remains problematic both for logistic staff inside Burma to the delta and for staff trying to get in from the outside," said Lionel Rosenblatt of the U.S.-based organization Refugees International.

Josette Sheeran, the head of the United Nations World Food Program, said the Burmese government has been granting more visas to foreign aid experts but is restricting their travel outside of Rangoon, the country's largest city and its former capital.

"What we need is a seamless global lifeline of relief supplies," Sheeran said. "Progress has been made, but urgent work remains on the critical last leg."

For more than two weeks after the cyclone hit, officials in Burma, also known as Myanmar, refused to permit foreign aid teams into the country, or to allow those already there to leave Rangoon, the largest city.

After intense international criticism, and a plea delivered in person by United Nations secretary general Ban Ki-moon last month, the country's ruling generals promised more access to cyclone victims.

But that didn't extend to allowing U.S., British and French warships waiting off the Irrawaddy Delta to furnish relief supplies directly to victims.

'Criminal neglect' by junta: Gates

All aid had to come through Rangoon's airport, the country's ruling generals said, prompting U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates to accuse them of "criminal neglect" in their handling of the crisis.

Gates is in Thailand for talks with the Thai military and officials that, among other issues, will cover aid provision to Burma.

Meanwhile, the country's deputy defence minister, Maj.-Gen. Aye Myint, said at a conference in Singapore that the Burmese government moved quickly to rescue and provide relief to survivors.

"Due to the prompt work" of the military government, food, water and medicine was provided to all victims, he said.

"I believe the resettlement and rehabilitation process will be speedy."

In its struggle to return to normalcy, the junta reopened many schools in areas hit by the cyclone in the Irrawaddy Delta, though others are only scheduled to reopen in July.

International aid agencies have said it may be too soon to send children back to school, because storm damage has made buildings unsafe.

Arbour says tolerance of rights abuse part of problem

In Geneva, the UN's top human rights official, Louise Arbour, made a blistering attack Monday on Burmese authorities for obstructing aid to the victims.

In her final address to the UN Human Rights Council, she also criticized the international community for not doing more to shame the military government for its record of human rights abuses.

"In the case of Myanmar, the obstruction to the deployment of such assistance illustrates the invidious effects of long-standing international tolerance for human rights violations that make this obstruction possible," she said.

Arbour, a former justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, is leaving her post as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights later this month, after finishing a term that began in 2004.

Schools plan 'too ambitious'

The United Nations Children's Fund said more than 4,000 schools serving 1.1 million children were damaged or destroyed by the storm and more than 100 teachers were killed. As a result, the government planned to train volunteer teachers and hold some classes in camps and other temporary sites, UNICEF said.

Anupama Rao Singh, UNICEF's regional director, said reopening schools in the delta "may be too ambitious," since construction materials were still on the way and there was not enough time to rebuild schools and train new teachers.

At least 35,000 homes were destroyed, according to an initial estimate by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. Thousands of other buildings will also have to be rebuilt, UNICEF has said.

Rising prices for building materials mean reconstruction efforts have to focus on shelter and medical facilities, officials said.

Ramesh Shrestha, who represents UNICEF in Burma, confirmed prices in the country have risen since the cyclone — not only for construction materials, but also for food, gasoline and other essentials.

With files from the Associated Press

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