Leading UN Official Defends International Aid Presence in Burma

YANGON, MYANMAR - Burmese children beg for food as aid begins to arrive a week after the cyclone, on May 13, 2008. (Getty Images)


NEW YORK, June 9, 2008 - More than one month after the devastating cyclone that killed more than 135,000 people in Myanmar/Burma, the Asia Society and the Open Society Institute convened a panel discussion to assess the situation there, focusing on the international humanitarian response and its reception by the country's ruling junta.

Top United Nations humanitarian official Sir John Holmes gave a firsthand account of the UN's discussions with Burmese military leaders and their reluctant acceptance of aid. Holmes defended aid agencies from charges of colluding with the regime, stating that further international sanctions or the threat of force would only have kept aid from the people who needed it so desperately.

While emphasizing the enormous challenges that remain, Holmes offered guarded optimism about the potential implications of Burma's dealings with the international community. "... Could this have a significance beyond the immediate humanitarian operation if both sides wanted it to? It's not for me to say and to delve into the political aspects of that, but it certainly shouldn't be ruled out," he concluded.

The remaining panelists provided several other perspectives on the ongoing relief work in Myanmar. The Honorable Henrietta Fore of USAID outlined the challenges facing the international aid community as a result of the "access constraints" posed by the government of Burma. She also summarized the progress of US humanitarian assistance in the country to date and the logistics of the aid process going forward.

Singapore's Ambassador to the UN Vanu Gopala Menon explained how the Burmese generals' suspicion of humanitarian aid as a camouflage for regime change has hindered relief efforts, and described the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)'s role in assisting Burma's recovery. A volunteer relief worker on the ground in Burma phoned in to convey local efforts to deliver aid to devastated remote villages that the Burmese government and foreign aid workers have not yet reached.

Reported by Mehr Qureshi and Christopher Sedgwick

Sir John Holmes, UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator
The Hon. Henrietta Fore, Administrator, US Agency for International Development and Director of US Foreign Assistance (via teleconference)
Amb. Vanu Gopala Menon, Permanent Representative of Singapore to the UN
George C. Biddle (Moderator), Senior Vice President, International Rescue Committee (IRC)


Listen to the complete program (1 hr., 29 min.)



Open Society Institute
United Nations appeal for humanitarian aid
US Agency for International Development
ASEAN Humanitarian Relief Efforts for Victims of Cyclone Nargis