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American Refugee Committee sends team to Myanmar

The American Refugee Committee, based in Minneapolis, is dispatching a rapid assessment team to help with recovery from the deadly cyclone that tore through Myanmar on Saturday. Read more… By Sharon Schmickle 

The American Refugee Committee, based in Minneapolis, is dispatching a rapid assessment team to help with recovery from the deadly cyclone that tore through Myanmar on Saturday.

The ARC long has assisted refugees from Myanmar (formerly Burma) at its base in Thailand. Gary Dahl — a Northfield, Minn., native, who is ARC’s country director for Thailand — will lead the team, spokeswoman Therese Gales said.

The death toll from Cyclone Nargis soared above 22,000 and more than 41,000 others were missing as foreign countries mobilized to rush in aid after the country’s deadliest storm on record, the Associated Press reported late Tuesday, citing state radio as the source of the information. Up to 1 million people may be homeless, the AP said.

Other private aid agencies and governments worldwide were rushing workers and supplies to Thailand, neighboring Myanmar, to pitch in with the rescue effort. But it was not clear whether the insular military government in Yangon would grant visas for them to enter the country.

Many international aid workers were stuck Tuesday outside Myanmar, waiting for visas.

“They are bogged down by a bureaucracy still reluctant to open its borders to foreigners, despite the suffering from the worst natural disaster in the country’s history,” ABC News reported.

“The situation is still bad, and nothing much beyond tree clearing is going on,” Shari Villarosa, the American charge’d’affairs in Myanmar, told ABC News. “Water, food and fuel shortages are likely to worsen, along with public discontent. People are worried about potential for looting and violence. …I hope the military eventually realizes that they need international help to get relief to the people.”

Experience in region

Gales said that ARC’s team will travel to the region later this week pending a decision on entry visas. 

The ARC workers would be well situated to help because of the organization’s experience in the region. Since its founding in 1979, the committee has worked in Southeast Asia, initially providing health care and other aid on the Thai-Cambodian border.

Since 1992, ARC has worked along the Thai-Myanmar border, serving ethnic Karens, a persecuted minority group that has unsuccessfully sought autonomy from Burma since the 1940s.

Dahl has lived in Thailand, directing ARC teams, for nearly two decades. He speaks languages of the region.

In 2005, Dahl headed ARC’s Minnesota-funded effort to replace hundreds of fishing boats that had been destroyed when a tsunami devastated villages along the shores of the Andaman Sea at the Thai-Myanmar border.

Covering the story for the Star Tribune, I watched Dahl skillfully negotiate deals with village elders, often sitting outdoors in the post-tsunami rubble. From corruption to local custom, there were sensitive issues and nuances that were lost on many aid workers from the outside. Indeed, some other workers sought his advice on breaking through bureaucratic and cultural barriers to their missions.

Dahl also directed an ARC team from Minneapolis that fanned out through the tsunami-stricken region to assess medical needs and other concerns.

U.S. offers aid
That was in Thailand, though. The difficulty rises by enormous degrees in Myanmar, even for those who know the region and the culture.   

Aid began trickling into the country on Tuesday from the government of Thailand and the World Food Program, although hard-hit coastal regions were mostly out of reach due to flooding and road damage, the International Herald Tribune reported.

“Even in Yangon, electricity remained cut for almost all 6.5 million residents, while water supply was restored in only a few areas,” the Herald Tribune said. “Buddhist monks and Catholic nuns wielding knives and axes joined residents in clearing roads of ancient, fallen trees that were once the city’s pride. And soldiers were out on the streets in large numbers for the first time since the cyclone hit, helping to clear trees as massive as 15-feet (4.5 meters) in diameter.”

President Bush called Tuesday for Myanmar’s junta to allow the United States to provide disaster assistance, saying Washington was prepared to move naval assets to help search for the dead and missing.

White House press secretary Dana Perino told reporters that the United States also is prepared to send more than $3 million to help the cyclone victims.