YANGON, Myanmar - The United Nations blasted Myanmar's military junta on Friday, calling its refusal to let in foreign aid workers "unprecedented" as survivors of a devastating cyclone waited for food, shelter and medicine.
The junta said in a statement Friday it was grateful to the international community for its assistance — which has included 11 chartered planes loaded with aid supplies — but the best way to help was just to send in material rather than personnel.
One relief flight was sent back after landing in Yangon on Thursday because it carried a search-and-rescue team and media representatives who had not received permission to enter the country, the junta said. It did not give details, but said the plane had flown in from Qatar, apparently referring to a U.N. flight.
According to state media, 22,997 people died and 42,019 are missing from Cyclone Nargis, which hit the country's Irrawaddy delta on Saturday. Shari Villarosa, who heads the United States Embassy in Yangon, said the number of dead could eventually exceed 100,000 because of illnesses.
On Friday, Japan said it will give aid worth $10 million through the U.N. to Myanmar, adding to the massive amounts of aid that has been pledged by foreign governments.
However, the isolationist regime of this Southeast Asian nation has refused to grant visas to foreign aid workers who could assess the extent of the disaster and manage the logistics.
Paul Risley, a spokesman for the U.N. World Food Program, said the organization has submitted 10 visa applications around the world, including six in Bangkok, Thailand, but none has been approved.
Even if the government changes its mind, there is no hope of getting any visas in Bangkok until Monday because of a Thai holiday Friday that has shut down the Myanmar Embassy, Risley said.
"The frustration caused by what appears to be a paperwork delay is unprecedented in modern humanitarian relief efforts," said Risley, who is based in Bangkok. "It's astonishing.
"We strongly urge the government of Myanmar to process these visa applications as quickly as possible, including work over the weekend," he said.
But there was no sign the junta was relenting.
"Currently Myanmar has prioritized receiving emergency relief provisions and making strenuous effort delivering it with its own labor to the affected areas," said the junta statement, carried in the state-owned New Light of Myanmar newspaper.
The announcement came as critical aid and experts to go with it were poised in neighboring Thailand and elsewhere to rush into Myanmar, one of the world's poorest nations.
"Believe me the government will not allow outsiders to go into the devastated area. The government only cares about its own stability. They don't care about the plight of the people," said Yangon food shop owner Joseph Kyaw, one of many residents angry at the regime for doing little to help them recover from the storm's destruction.
Among those waiting in Thailand were members of the USAID Disaster Assistance Response Team. Air Force transport planes and helicopters packed with supplies also sat waiting for a green light to enter Myanmar, also known as Burma.
"We are in a long line of nations who are ready, willing and able to help, but also, of course, in a long line of nations the Burmese don't trust," U.S. Ambassador Eric John told reporters in Thailand's capital, Bangkok, on Thursday.
Myanmar allowed the first major international aid shipment Thursday — four U.N. planes carrying high-energy biscuits, including one which was apparently turned back. On Friday, state-owned television showed a cargo plane from Italy with water containers, food and plastic sheets at Yangon international airport.
Two of four U.N. experts who flew in to assess the damage were turned back at the airport for unknown reasons, but the other two were allowed to enter, said John Holmes, the U.N. relief coordinator.
It is not clear how much of the aid is reaching the Irrawaddy delta, where entire villages have been submerged with bodies floating in salty water and children ripped from their parents' arms.
The U.N. estimated that more than 1 million people have been left homeless.
"The most dramatic situation is the case of children who have lost their parents. We don't know at the moment how many have lost their parents, relatives," said Juanita Vasquez, a representative of the U.N. Children's Fund in Myanmar.
Grim assessments about the immediate future continued: The aid group Action Against Hunger noted that the delta region is known as the country's granary, and the cyclone hit before the harvest.
"If the harvest has been destroyed this will have a devastating impact on food security in Myanmar," the group said.
In Yangon itself, the price of increasingly scarce water shot up by more than 500 percent, and rice and oil jumped by 60 percent over the last three days, the group said.
Hardships in the country's largest city have prompted some embassies, including that of the United States, to send diplomats' families out of the country.
Although the military regime had begun allowing in the first major international aid shipments, it snubbed a U.S. offer to help cyclone victims
By doing so, the junta refused to take advantage of Washington's enormous ability to deliver aid quickly, which was evident during the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that killed 230,000 people in a dozen nations.
The first foreign military aid following that disaster reached the hardest-hit nation, Indonesia, two days later. The most significant help came when U.S. helicopters from the USS Abraham Lincoln began flying relief missions to isolated communities along the Indonesian coast.
With roads in the Irrawaddy delta washed out and the infrastructure in shambles, large swaths of the region are accessible only by air, something few other countries are equipped to handle as well as the U.S.
Tim Costello, chief executive of World Vision Australia, said that "it's certainly the case that the Americans, as they showed in the tsunami, have extraordinary capacity."
The U.S. government, which has strongly criticized the junta's suppression of pro-democracy activists, will have to convince the generals that Washington has no political agenda, Costello said.
Meanwhile, in Canberra, Australia, protesters angry at the Myanmar regime threw a bottle at a diplomat's car and scuffled with police outside the country's embassy. Three people were detained by police.
Prime Minister Kevin Rudd criticized the junta for its restrictions on aid workers.
Also on Thursday, Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates announced that the Gates Foundation would donate $3 million for relief efforts and provide software to help reunite family members separated in the cyclone.
The Sly News