May 14, 2008 / 4:09 AM / 11 years ago

CORRECTED-Anger mounts in Bangkok at Myanmar aid visa delays

(Corrects name of aid group in paragraph 17 to International SOS from SOS International)

By Ed Cropley

BANGKOK, May 12 (Reuters) - A furious rescue worker accused Myanmar’s military junta on Monday of crimes against humanity for refusing to fast-track visas for aid officials desperate to enter the country to help the 1.5 million survivors of Cyclone Nargis.

"They say they will call, but it’s always wait, wait, wait," Pierre Fouillant of the Comite de Secours Internationaux, a French disaster rescue agency, told Reuters after being turned awawy from the former Burma’s embassy in the Thai capital.

"I’ve never seen delays like this, never," said Fouillant, a veteran of 10 humanitarian disasters. "It’s a crime against humanity. It should be against the law. It’s like they are taking a gun and shooting their own people."

Like dozens of others, Fouillant applied on Thursday for a business visa, his only option since the military-ruled and isolated southeast Asian nation has no such thing as an "emergency aid" visa.

The embassy was closed on Friday for a Thai government holiday, and was locked shut on Saturday and Sunday. It opened as normal on Monday morning.

At least 100,000 people are thought to have died in the May 2 cyclone and storm surge in the Irrawaddy delta, a death toll that could rise dramatically if survivors do not get access to food, clean water and medicine in the next few days, experts say.

Reuters witnesses on the edges of the disaster zone say towns and villages are being swamped by huge numbers of cyclone refugees and cannot cope.

There is virtually no government assistance and food is running out. Some residents say they are afraid the desperate evacuees will be forced to turn to looting.


Against this backdrop, small groups of rescue workers are having to wait outside the iron-spiked, grey walls of the embassy compound in Bangkok while their leaders and local visa agents try to see if their applications have got anywhere.

"It is very frustrating," said Australian firefighter Craig Allan, who dropped everything at home to get to Bangkok and apply for a visa on Thursday.

His agency, part of Baptist World Aid, is called "Rescue 24" as it is meant to be able to put a team on the ground within 24 hours of any disaster anywhere in the world. In this case, it might be 24 days, he joked bleakly.

The U.N. says it has been promised three World Food Programme visas to be issued on Monday evening, and a handful of aid workers are getting visas at Myanmar embassies elsewhere around the world.

Some ordinary people are applying for tourist visas simply because they want to check on friends living in a country that still has an ability to cast a spell over visitors despite — some might say because of — its military government.

"I went there once as a tourist and fell in love with the place," said one American student who had flown in from Los Angeles. He said he had many Burmese friends from a year teaching English and learning Burmese in the former capital, Yangon.

"I just want to check my friends are OK and see what I can do," the student said. He did not want to give his name in case it jeopardised his application. "They said come back in four days. I’ll just keep my fingers crossed," he said.

Before the cyclone struck, it took just 24 hours to process a tourist visa.

Patrick Michaudel, a French employee of medical services company International SOS, with clinics in Yangon, was almost in tears as he left the embassy at the end of a fruitless week-long wait for a visa.

When he got to the front of the queue, Michaudel was elated to see his passport open on the desk with a visa inside.

He could only watch in horror as a female official then carefully peeled the visa sticker out of his passport and crudely covered up the partial stamp on the passport page with liquid paper.

"No reason, no reason. She just peeled it out," he said, with a shrug of the shoulders. "I’ve had enough of this. I’m going home."


For more stories on Myanmar cyclone click on [nSP152717]

————————————————————————————— (Writing by Ed Cropley; Editing by Darren Schuettler)

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