BEIJING — Away from public view, Myanmar has opened up to global relief efforts to an unprecedented degree after initially thwarting foreign attempts to help victims of a devastating cyclone last spring, a U.S. relief agency said in a report issued Friday.
The May 2-3 rampage of Cyclone Nargis left 140,000 people dead or missing.
Myanmar's military leaders turned away U.S. and French warships offering humanitarian aid to the cyclone-wracked Irrawaddy River Delta area immediately following the cyclone, giving the impression they'd rather let victims perish than admit inability to cope with the catastrophe.
But a report prepared for release Friday by Refugees International, a Washington-based relief group, said the image of "a recalcitrant government that rejects aid from the generous nations of the world" is no longer accurate.
The group said Myanmar has issued some 1,000 visas to international aid workers since June and offered "an unprecedented level of access" to the delta region.
The report said Myanmar, which is widely known as Burma, has now more opened to international relief than at any time in the past two decades, and that the unfolding situation is "a story ignored by international reports that focus on the government's obstructionism."
Several Burma watchers based in neighboring Thailand, along with a U.N. official who keeps tabs on Myanmar, said foreign relief workers are now able to enter the country and travel quite freely around the southern delta region.
"With almost no exceptions, visas are being issued and almost routinely," said the U.N. official based in Bangkok, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized by superiors to speak publicly on the matter.
Win Min, a lecturer on contemporary Myanmar at Payap University in Chiang Mai, Thailand, said the military regime has artfully cast the opening as a response to appeals from a regional political bloc, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, rather than as a response to pressure from the United Nations, the United States or European countries.
"ASEAN is not a threat to them. ASEAN does not put a lot of pressure on them," Win Min said, adding that he believes the opening to foreign relief workers will remain in effect as long as foreign aid flows in.
Refugees International said its employees interviewed the staffs of more than 40 humanitarian organizations active in Myanmar and that all reported freedom to "implement and monitor programs without obstruction."
Myanmar continues to deny visas to foreign journalists, reducing global awareness of the ongoing humanitarian crisis and hindering efforts to gather donations, especially in comparison to the torrent of aid given to Indonesia, Thailand and Sri Lanka following the 2004 tsunami that killed more than 225,000 people.
The United Nations issued a new appeal on Wednesday for donor nations to give money for Myanmar relief, saying it had only reached 41 percent of a $481 million target needed through April 2009.
ON THE WEB
The most recent U.N. situation report on Myanmar cyclone relief.