8 May 2008
Press Conference

Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

press conference by Emergency Relief Coordinator

 

on humanitarian situation in myanmar

 


In the wake of the devastating Cyclone Nargis, the humanitarian situation in Myanmar was growing increasingly desperate with nearly 1.5 million people severely affected and a real danger that an even worse tragedy might unfold if urgently needed aid did not get in quickly, according to John Holmes, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and United Nations Emergency Relief Coordinator.


At a Headquarters press conference today, Mr. Holmes reported that 23,000 people had been confirmed dead and 42,000 missing, while acknowledging that other estimates were much higher and it would not be surprising if official figures rose “very significantly” in the coming days.  Frustrations were growing that the humanitarian response was “being held back because of difficulties of access in different ways”.  There had been limited progress since yesterday, but not nearly as much as was needed.


“We are simply trying to help the Government of Myanmar to carry out their responsibilities to aid these people in increasingly desperate need … there are no other political motives in this and, therefore, I appeal very strongly indeed to the Government of Myanmar both to step up their own relief efforts to help people on the ground, and to change their attitude completely to the efforts that we are making to get these relief supplies in,” Mr. Holmes urged.  Despite close contacts with the authorities -- “to keep on pressing hard for more cooperation, for more facilitation, for much greater ease of access, if possible, for waiver of visa and other requirements” -- the progress seen since yesterday was disappointing.


“We are pressing them locally and from here as much as we can.  The Secretary-General is attempting, as we speak, to talk to the Senior General, Than Shwe, to urge him very strongly to facilitate access and to allow us to do the job we need to do,” he said.  Two members of the Disaster Assessment and Coordination Team were now in Yangon, but two others had not been allowed in for reasons yet to be established, but which might have to do with the passports they were carrying.  At least 40 visa applications were still pending in and around Bangkok.  World Food Programme (WFP) staff had received two new visas, but the picture was still “very patchy” and “extremely unsatisfying”.


In terms of progress, he said, WFP had been able to get two flights in today containing food aid of one sort or another, including via a Thai Airways commercial cargo flight, seven metric tons of high-energy biscuits.  That meant there were more than 40 tons of high-energy biscuits -- readily consumable and extremely nutritious -- on the ground in Yangon and they would be moved on as fast as possible to those who needed them.


WFP had also begun distributions in the town of Labuta, where trucks carrying rice and other food were beginning to arrive, he continued.  Hopefully, distribution would start tomorrow.  The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) had also been able to get supplies flown in today.  The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) was in the process of sending 3 million water purification tablets, enough to provide clean water to 200,000 people for a week, and had pre-positioned emergency supplies, including enough family-health kits for 155,000 people.


So, while some supplies were beginning to arrive, “clearly an awful lot more is desperately needed to address the situation”, Mr. Holmes said.  Since yesterday, the authorities had agreed that customs charges and clearances should be waived for aid delivery, but it was not clear whether that had been made fully operational on the ground.  There had been “a little bit of progress” in terms of roads and establishing piped water and electricity to some areas of Yangon, and more supplies continued to arrive from Thailand, Japan, China and India.  The Myanmar Red Cross was also distributing emergency relief supplies as far as possible.


He said the approximately 23 agencies and non-governmental organizations presently on the ground were working hard to get in as much aid as possible, but they needed access to get more expert staff in “and that’s why we’re pressing the authorities as hard as we are”.  One particular concern was the many corpses that needed to be buried or otherwise disposed of quickly because of the health threat.  That was one of the most urgent worries at the moment, as it was a threat to humans and livestock.


Asked whether it was time for the Security Council to intervene and for the Secretary-General to “go public” in condemning what was happening, Mr. Holmes said he had been describing the situation as he saw it and in a way that would be most helpful to getting aid in to the people on the ground.  Yesterday, he had described discussions with Myanmar authorities, and he was disappointed today that there had not been more results from those discussions, though they were continuing.  “I think we need, if possible, to continue to urge the Government to cooperate and to press them to cooperate in every way possible.”  However, confrontation with the Government would likely not result in more help to people on the ground, which was the absolute priority.


In response to several questions as to whether the forthcoming referendum was the reason for the Government’s reluctance to let aid workers in, the Under-Secretary-General said he did not know whether there was any connection, and he did not want to make one.


Pressed further about the referendum, he said one could speculate, as the regime was politically isolated and suspicious.  That by itself might be enough to explain the situation without the added factor of the referendum, but the focus was on getting assistance to those in need as fast as possible rather than getting the provision of humanitarian aid “mixed up in a political discussion about whether or not it’s appropriate to hold a referendum”.  While there might be such a link, it was not helpful to go into that while playing a humanitarian role.


In reply to another question, he said the Government had clearly opened up to some extent, noting that it had said early on that it welcomed outside assistance, and quite a lot had arrived.  The border was not closed, but it simply was “not anything as open as it should be”.


Experts were needed most, and not necessarily vast numbers of people on the ground, he replied to another question.  However, the numbers of people waiting to get into Myanmar were significantly higher than the 40 United Nations staff mentioned earlier.  There were many non-governmental organizations with teams of 5 to 10 people or more, and the United Nations had significant numbers of staff already on the ground -- perhaps 75 to 80 international and 1,500 national staff being deployed insofar as possible.


Responding to another question, he said there was a role for naval and other military assets in the crisis, as there had been during the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.


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For information media • not an official record