Monday, May 12, 2008

Admiral Keating To Burma, Offer of 4000 Marines for Help

[From May 12 Washington Post]
U.S. Tries to Persuade Burma to Accept Aid
Military Offers to Deploy Up to 4,000 U.S. Marines

By Amy Kazmin and Howard Schneider
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, May 12, 2008; 1:14 PM

BANGKOK, May 12 -- The United States stepped up diplomatic efforts Monday to persuade Burma's reclusive ruling generals to accept American military help for struggling cyclone relief efforts, as a top U.S. admiral met his Burmese counterpart in the highest-level military talks between the two countries in decades.

Adm. Timothy J. Keating, head of the U.S. Pacific Command, and Henrietta H. Fore, administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, arrived in Rangoon Monday from Thailand's U-Tapao air base on an unarmed American C-130 military cargo plane carrying about 14 tons of water, blankets, mosquito nets and other supplies for survivors of Cyclone Nargis.

The officials conducted what were described as "cordial" talks at the Rangoon airport with Vice Adm. Soe Thein, the Burmese naval chief, and other officials to discuss relief work and the potential of U.S. military forces to help.

The United States has offered to deploy up to 4,000 Marines, six C-130 planes and a large number of heavy-lift helicopters in what would be its largest disaster relief effort abroad since the Indian Ocean tsunami in December 2004. The United States could also have three naval ships, with helicopters on board, positioned off Burma's southwest coast within 48 hours.

Keating said he briefed the Burmese officials on the U.S. military's relief capabilities in the region. All that was missing, he said, was permission from the Burmese government for the United States to provide assistance.

"We have a broad array of personnel and equipment, and we are ready to respond as soon as the Burmese give us permission," Keating said. "We did not get that permission today," he added. "They will take it under advisement."

The Burmese authorities did clear two more C-130 relief flights, and Fore expressed hope for deepening cooperation as time goes on.

"We left this morning with the hope that we could lay the groundwork for a broader U.S. assistance, and I believe our discussions were a good first step," she said.

No new commitments were made by the Burmese government during the roughly two hours that U.S. officials spent on the ground, never leaving the Rangoon airport. Fore announced that the United States had pledged an additional $13 million toward the relief efforts, bringing the U.S. total to $16.25 million. She said there would be two more American aid flights Tuesday, both previously scheduled.

Burma's military rulers are highly wary of Western governments, and especially of Washington. President Bush has previously called Burma "an outpost of tyranny," and the generals have accused Washington of trying to overthrow them by supporting Burmese dissidents, both inside and outside the country.

The U.S. diplomatic offensive comes as Western governments are retreating from talk of invoking a "right to protect" and trying to deliver aid directly to cyclone survivors, with or without clearance from Burmese authorities.

While the pace of relief flights into Rangoon airport is accelerating, U.N. agencies say that major logistical bottlenecks are still hampering the distribution of much-needed food, water and medicine to the stricken areas.

Military authorities are now sealing off the disaster zone to foreigners, who are being turned back at checkpoints on the roads. Transport is also in short supply, although the Burmese military is now using seven of its own helicopters to ferry supplies from the airport into the affected areas.

Terje Skavdal of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said United Nations agencies are also urging Burma's neighbors "to influence the situation" and try to secure greater access for international aid workers, including logistics experts. The World Food Program said it is not even able to deliver 20 percent of the estimated 375 tons of food needed in the area each day.

Burmese authorities, meanwhile, announced that the confirmed death toll has risen to nearly 32,000, with nearly 30,000 other people still missing. U.S. and U.N. officials have said the death toll ultimately could reach 100,000.

Earlier, international officials warned that conditions in the disaster zone could worsen dramatically in the days ahead.

As survivors of Nargis poured out of the devastated Irrawaddy Delta into regional towns in search of water, food and other help, the British charity Oxfam on Sunday warned that an estimated 1.5 million Burmese are on the brink of a "massive public health catastrophe."

Burma is facing a "perfect storm" of conditions that could lead to an outbreak of waterborne disease, said Sarah Ireland, Oxfam's regional director.

"The ponds are full of dead bodies, the wells have saline water, and even things like a bucket are in scarce supply," Ireland said.

The struggling relief efforts suffered another setback when a boat ferrying rice, drinking water, clothing and other aid sank in the delta early Sunday, apparently after hitting a submerged tree, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies said.

Residents were able to salvage some of the supplies, meant for more than 1,000 survivors, but river water contaminated the food, the organization said. All of those aboard made it safely to land. The boat was carrying one of the first international aid shipments.

"This is a great loss," said Aung Kyaw Htut, who is supervising the distribution effort. "This would have been our very first river shipment, and it will delay aid for a further day."

The cyclone and powerful tidal sea surge ripped across the low-lying delta a week ago.

With conditions in the delta increasingly desperate, survivors began besieging small towns, searching for help. In the town of Laputta, which lost 85 percent of its buildings, about 28 makeshift camps have sprung up. But supplies are limited.

The World Food Program, which on Friday accused authorities of impounding planeloads of emergency food, said cargo and materials sent since then had been released and sent to disaster zones. The International Committee of the Red Cross also sent a planeload of supplies Sunday, including body bags.

Yet a week on, most survivors have not yet received any help, because of the lack of supplies and logistical difficulties.

"Beyond the main arterial roads, it's a massive challenge, not only because the floodwaters are still there, but also because even when they are not, it's extremely difficult to navigate," said Marcus Prior, a WFP spokesman.

The Burmese army insists that it can manage the massive relief operation and has rebuffed offers from the United States, its longtime critic, and countries in the region for military assistance to distribute aid.

But for years, Burma's military has struggled to feed its own. Vegetables are often grown alongside the runways of army airfields, and chicken coops are usually kept behind barracks across the country, which the ruling junta calls Myanmar. Troops in far-flung places have long been ordered to "live off the land" because the army command has been unable to reliably supply its 400,000-member force with the food it needs.

"The logistical system in Burma is so shaky that in the 1990s, they told regional commanders and bases outside Rangoon [the country's main city] that they had to take care of their own logistics" for basic needs, said a Western analyst who has studied Burma's military.

Military analysts warn that Burma's army has neither adequate equipment nor training to cope with the crisis, and its insistence on going it alone -- or through its own "strenuous labor" as state media call it -- could cost many lives.

"Disaster relief operations, like any military operation, require training, practice and equipment," said Robert Karniol, a regional defense writer. "Even if they were well practiced, they would have difficulties responding because of the scale."

Humanitarian groups are reluctant to cooperate with foreign militaries in disaster response. But the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and the 2005 earthquake in Pakistan showed how foreign militaries could use specialized transportation equipment to move large quantities of supplies to hard-to-reach areas.

The Irrawaddy Delta presents the type of logistical challenge best suited for military hardware. Vast areas remain submerged, accessible only by boat or helicopter, and the region's ports are inaccessible to civilian ships as a result of the damage.

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