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U.S. Gets Mixed Signals on Helping Myanmar

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

The international community is trying to help Myanmar recover from the catastrophic cyclone that struck last weekend, but the reclusive military government there continues to make it hard for disaster relief teams and emergency supplies to enter the country.

BLOCK: Some experts say the death toll could reach 100,000 if help does not arrive soon. And the United Nations estimates that one and a half million people have been seriously affected by the cyclone. In a moment, we'll talk with the U.N.'s emergency relief coordinator.

NORRIS: Today, two planes carrying food and other supplies did land in Myanmar, also known as Burma, but more supplies are needed. The United States says it has fully-loaded standing by next door in Thailand.

And as NPR's Doualy Xaykaothao reports from Bangkok, U.S. and Thai officials thought they had permission to send a C-130 into Myanmar, but that turned out not to be the case.

DOUALY XAYKAOTHAO: The U.S. ambassador to Thailand, Eric John, says an initial response from the government of Myanmar cleared the way for the U.S. to land there.

Ambassador ERIC JOHN (United States Ambassador to Thailand): They communicated that very clearly to the Thais, and the Thais communicated that to us, and we started work.

XAYKAOTHAO: But a few hours later something changed.

Ambassador JOHN: I don't think it was - I'm not sure it was reversed, but the decision was pulled off the table, and I think the most optimistic way of characterizing it is that the Burmese are still considering having that C-130 come in.

XAYKAOTHAO: He says he hopes that as the Burmese leadership surveys the massive scale of death and human suffering, they'll see that it's imperative that humanitarian assistance flows in. If and when that happens, the U.S. will provide at least $3 million in supplies, possibly accompanied by a disaster assistance response team headed by Olivier Carduner, mission director for USAID in Asia.

Myanmar's infrastructure was fragile even before the cyclone, he says. Now with heavy flooding in the country's Iriwati Delta, delivering supplies will be more difficult still, putting more lives at risk.

Mr. OLIVIER CARDUNER (USAID Asia): So what you have in the early days is all of a sudden no access to clean water. You can have people start getting serious diarrhea, which can be very debilitating and further weaken folks and make people more susceptible to disease. So it's important to have this rapid response.

XAYKAOTHAO: Andrew Kirkwood agrees. He's with the U.K.-based Save the Children already operating inside Myanmar. In a conference call from there, he told reporters there's not nearly enough aid reaching victims.

Mr. ANDREW KIRKWOOD (Save the Children): The problem for us is the logistics. It's getting truckloads of fuel to mount a huge logistics operation, which is required. We're confronting many, many problems.

XAYKAOTHAO: Still, his group, with 500 people on the ground, has managed to help some 50,000 people from Yangon to the low-lying flooded areas of the delta.

Mr. KIRKWOOD: We're reaching so many people so quickly because people are congregating in schools and monasteries. With no sanitation facilities, essentially, very little clean water and not much food, everybody is desperate to rebuild the small homes that they had and get back to them. This is going to take months, and in some cases, probably years.

XAYKAOTHAO: Humanitarian organizations have had trouble getting visas to send disaster relief experts to Myanmar. The U.N. World Food Program has had some success, but it was just two visas.

Doualy Xaykaothao, NPR News, Bangkok. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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Doualy Xaykaothao is a newscaster and reporter for NPR, based in Culver City. She returned to NPR for this role in 2018, and is responsible for writing, producing, and delivering national newscasts. She also reports on breaking news stories for NPR.