U.S. seeks OK for more flights to Myanmar
Stars and Stripes May 14, 2008
PATTAYA, Thailand — The first U.S. relief flight to Myanmar landed Monday in the capital of Yangon, carrying both supplies and a plea to allow more aid for Cyclone Nargis victims.
Providing safe drinking water and preventing disease are top priorities, aid workers said Monday.
"This is Burma’s hour of need — and the need is urgent," said Henrietta Fore, administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development.
Monday’s mission was both humanitarian and diplomatic, as Fore, U.S. Pacific Command commanding officer Adm. Timothy Keating and others rode with the cargo to ask Myanmar officials to allow more aid inside the country’s isolationist borders.
Only three U.S. flights have been approved by Myanmar’s military junta — Monday’s and two scheduled for Tuesday.
"We can bring in 200,000 pounds of supplies a day," Keating said at Thailand’s Utapao Air Base before the flight. "We are limited only by permission."
Monday’s flight of blankets, mosquito nets and water, was "a gesture," said Lt. Col. Douglas Powell, spokesman for the newly-coined Joint Task Force Caring Response.
"It’s a start," Powell said. "It’s not very much, I know."
Supplies are already pre-staged at Utapao Air Base and there are 11,000 servicemembers currently in-country for a multi-national military exercise called Cobra Gold, Powell said.
The C-130 aircraft brought 8,300 bottles of water among its supplies, said Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman.
Two other U.S. C-130 aircraft were expected to arrive Tuesday in Myanmar with relief supplies, Whitman said.
While the manifest for the two aircraft is still being finalized, food and water are expected to be top priorities, he said.
Assistance to Myanmar is being coordinated by Joint Task Force Caring Response, formally the joint task force in charge of the Cobra Gold exercise in Thailand, Whitman said.
Cobra Gold will continue, but without some U.S. naval forces, he said.
USAID also earmarked $3.25 million for the effort — the majority of which will go to local organizations already in country, Fore said.
Outside organizations face hefty restrictions on personnel, addressed by U.S. Ambassador to Thailand Eric John on Monday in a plea to the junta to allow visas for teams of specialized personnel waiting to work.
"Let them in; let them save lives," John said.
For their part, the crew of the first C-130 to land in Myanmar said their work felt "highly important," although they were unsure what was going to happen when they landed. Myanmar’s government plans to distribute the aid themselves.
Asked if the U.S. government was discussing with the Myanmar government whether it could help deliver aid to those in need, Whitman said State Department officials have made a number of proposals to local authorities on how to assist the affected citizens, but, "they haven’t said yes."
"We haven’t gone there in 40 years," said loadmaster Senior Airman Daniel Mortensen of the Yokota, Japan-based 36th Airlift Squadron. "This is not about how fast we unload, it’s about building future relationships."
In order to make inroads, they are waiving U.S. sovereignty over the aircraft to allow Myanmar personnel to enter, Mortensen said. Keating said he hoped this begins "a long train of flights" and that the military’s vast resources will be utilized. Four Navy ships are standing by to help in international waters near Myanmar, according to a 7th Fleet release.
The USS Essex is expected to arrive Tuesday in international waters off Burma in case it is needed to help with relief efforts, Whitman said. So far, the Myanmar government has not requested that the Essex help with such efforts.
"We can bring anything that can fit in a C-130 or slung under a helicopter — and that covers a lot of things," Keating said.
Stripes’ Jeff Schogol contributed to this report from the Pentagon.
U.S. sailors and Marines prepare aid for victimsSailors and Marines with the Essex Amphibious Readiness Group this past weekend filled water containers in preparation for delivery to Myanmar, should the government further open its borders to allow more aid to cyclone victims.
The servicemembers with the Essex group and the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit filled 14,000 5-gallon bladders full of fresh water Sunday, according to a Navy release.
If called upon, the sailors and Marines could load the water onto boats and helicopters for distribution in areas hit by Cyclone Nargis.
"This is what we are here for," Chief Petty Officer Andres Carillo, a hull maintenance technician aboard the USS Essex, is quoted in the release. "It’s our mission to help those in need."
So far, the Myanmar government has accepted very few offers of aid since Nargis hit its coastal region May 3. As of Monday, the government had agreed to let three U.S. military shipments into the country, one on Monday and two more Tuesday.
The Essex group, based out of Sasebo, Japan, and currently at sea, includes the USS Essex, the USS Juneau, the USS Harpers Ferry and the USS Mustin.
"We are capitalizing on the excess water the ship has to support the victims who need it," Capt. Ray Howard, embark officer with Okinawa-based 31st MEU, said in the release.
"We want to be able have the water distributed by the quickest means possible and be on call for help so that when, within reach, we can send the water via helicopter and boat to the disaster areas," he said.