(New York) - Despite welcome and improved access to the Irrawaddy Delta area affected by Cyclone Nargis, the Burmese military government is still using red tape to obstruct some relief efforts when it should accept all aid immediately and unconditionally, Human Rights Watch said today. The government’s response to the humanitarian disaster as primarily a national security matter shows political oppression taking priority over the needs of the people.

Since the visit of United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the international pledging conference on May 25 in Rangoon, the Burmese government has eased visa restrictions on pending visa applications of personnel from UN agencies, the US Agency for International Development and international humanitarian agencies to permit them to enter Rangoon. However, in his statement at the conference, Burmese Prime Minister Thein Sein appeared to link the admission of aid workers to the country with long-term rebuilding work only saying, “For those groups who are interested in rehabilitation and reconstruction, my government is ready to accept them, in accordance with our priorities and the extent of work that needs to be done.”

Yet the country is not at the stage for reconstruction efforts. The UN estimates that fewer than half of the people affected by the cyclone have received any form of aid because of Burmese government stonewalling. Even among those who have been “reached,” many may have only received a single aid packet, but have not necessarily received adequate food, water, shelter, and medical care.

“Helping people in need should take precedence over the priorities of the generals,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “By still delaying and hampering aid efforts that are stopping aid from reaching those who need it, the generals are showing that, even during a disaster, oppression rules.”

The ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) is still enforcing a 48-hour permission period for international aid workers to travel to the delta, with some exceptions. While 48 hours is a dramatic improvement on the usual pre-cyclone, four-week approval period to visit field sites, it is still wasting urgent time.

Several helicopters from the UN World Food Programme have arrived, and permission has been granted for more civilian boats to be used to deliver aid in the flooded region. But the government still refuses access to dock US, French and British naval vessels that have been sailing off the coast with aid and logistical assets for the last two weeks. The government says they will only accept civilian boats. However, the US vessel has helicopters and small vessels that could deliver aid quickly and effectively to remote locations.

“Don’t let those ships sail away while people continue to suffer needlessly because of the paranoia of the generals,” Adams said. “There’s a race against time to save lives, so the Burmese government needs to let these boats dock now and grant immediate travel to the delta.”

The SPDC’s National Disaster Preparedness Committee issued a news release on May 27 which states that individuals and groups are permitted to travel and distribute aid themselves, rather than through government agencies. However, authorities continue to interdict aid from private Burmese citizens seeking to reach cyclone-affected areas. According to press reports, on May 25 the authorities stopped 46 drivers bringing aid from Rangoon by private donors and impounded their vehicles.

An official flier in distribution in Rangoon calls on citizens to refrain handing out aid to anyone without consultation with authorities: “Donors are requested not to give away their supplies to random people. They should instead go to storm relief committees in townships, wards and villages. Doing this will help save the prestige of Myanmar people so that locals and foreigners do not look down on them.”

Bureaucratic delays and restrictions on importing of goods is also hampering efforts to bring in aid supplies, urgently needed technical materials, and supplies such as satellite phones, mobile phones and vehicles. Human Rights Watch urged the Burmese government to lift restrictions and allow import of aid supplies and technical assets without the normal red tape.

With the world’s attention distracted by the humanitarian crisis, Burma’s government continues to reject the genuine political reforms that the slow and inept cyclone response shows are needed. On May 27, only two days after the visit by Secretary-General Ban and donor governments at the pledging conference, the SPDC extended the house arrest of opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) leader Aung San Su Kyi for another year. She has spent the past 13 out of 18 years in detention. There are reports that on May 27, the authorities arrested NLD supporters protesting her prolonged detention. An estimated 1,800 other political prisoners remain in prison in Burma. The SPDC went ahead with a constitutional referendum in most parts of the country on May 10, just days after the cyclone, and then on May 24 held the referendum in remaining areas worst-affected by the cyclone. Despite obvious flaws in the process and its implementation, China and Thailand hailed the referendum as progress.

Human Rights Watch urged international donors to recognize that the slow and inadequate response to the cyclone is intrinsically connected to the government’s decades-long political oppression, including violations of the rights to free expression, association and assembly, and the right of the Burmese people to choose their own government.

“It’s not the international community that has politicized aid, but the military junta, which went ahead with a sham referendum while blocking relief and aid workers for crucial weeks,” Adams said. “Donors who fail to connect aid to political reform are missing an opportunity to prevent such a disaster from happening again.