Myanmar will accept foreign aid but not foreign aid workers, the foreign ministry said on Friday, after a disaster rescue team from Qatar that arrived in Yangon on an aid flight was turned back.
"Myanmar is not in a position to receive rescue and information teams from foreign countries at the moment," said a foreign ministry statement carried in the official Myanma Ahlin newspaper.
"But at present Myanmar is giving priority to receiving relief aid and distributing them to the storm-hit regions with its own resources," the statement said.
The Qatar plane was one of 12 international relief flights that landed in the former capital on Thursday, it said.
Thai Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej said on Friday he had cancelled a planned trip to Myanmar this weekend after the junta's announcement that it would not welcome foreign aid workers, just hours after he said he would go.
"After they said today they would not welcome foreign staff, there is no point of me going there," Samak said.
Frustration is mounting over Myanmar's generally feeble response to one of its worst disasters in memory and particularly the delays in giving visas to aid workers and landing rights for relief flights.
Western aid experts in Bangkok will have to wait at least four more days to get into Myanmar to help cyclone victims because the Myanmar embassy in the Thai capital has taken a local holiday on Friday.
"This is a four-day wait which just should not happen," said Paul Risley, spokesman for the U.N. World Food Programme. "This is too long to wait for people whose lives are at such a precarious balance."
Children swept away
The official death toll still stands at nearly 23,000, with 42,119 people remained missing although experts fear it could be as high as 100,000. With saltwater ruining wells, grain stores and rice fields, the relief task ahead will be enormous.
The United Nations estimates at least 1.5 million people out of a population of 53 million are "severely affected" -- needing food and shelter.
Survivors have been mostly fending for themselves in the swampy delta after Cyclone Nargis packing winds of up to 190 kph (120 mph) whipped up a massive wall of sea-water that hurtled through the low-lying Irrawaddy Delta.
Villages were swept away leaving corpses littering the rice fields of the Delta, once called "Asia's rice bowl." Children were the most vulnerable to the onslaught.
"They are gone. They are gone," U Thein, who lost her 8-year-old son and 3-month-old daughter in the cyclone, whispered in her village near hard-hit Labutta town in the delta.
Around her, in hushed tones, villagers said more than 100 of their friends and relatives were killed in Saturday's carnage. Scores of trees blocked pathways or balanced precariously on top of the few buildings left standing in U Khin-Hlaing village.
Besides the cawing of crows and gentle weeping of the destitute, the only sound is the hammering of nails as villagers try to rebuild their homes in the malaria-infested swamplands.
No soldiers or government agencies have turned up to help.
Myanmar's junta urged citizens on Friday to do their patriotic duty and vote for an army-drafted constitution in a televised message that made mo mention of the millions living in cyclone-affected areas where the balloting has been postponed.
The junta's opponents have suggested the reason for the delays in allowing in aid workers could be that the generals do not want an influx of foreigners before Saturday's referendum.
The vote in the devastated south would be held in two weeks. The last time Myanmar had an election, in 1990, the generals lost in a landslide to Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy.
In the storm-ravaged former capital of Yangon, a city of five million, people were stunned that the referendum was going ahead.
"It shows how unreasonable and crazy they can be. They just want to celebrate victory even though the people are suffering," one shop owner told Reuters.
Outside Myanmar, anger has mounted as well this week over the delays in letting aid through to hundreds of thousands of people who face hunger and disease.
"We're outraged by the slowness of the response of the government of Burma to welcome and accept assistance," U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Zalmay Khalilzad told reporters.
Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said on Friday he wanted Southeast Asian nations and China to apply more pressure on Myanmar. "The Burmese regime is behaving appallingly," he said.
But U.N. humanitarian affairs chief John Holmes questioned the value of voicing outrage with the junta over the aid delays.
"It's not clear to me at this stage anyway that bludgeoning them over the head is going to make any difference or make it any better. We have to work with them," he told National Public Radio.
China, the closest thing Myanmar has to an ally, urged patience in dealing with the junta.
Last Mod: 11 Mayıs 2008, 00:35