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Page last updated at 11:37 GMT, Sunday, 18 May 2008 12:37 UK

Burma: Stand-off is over

On Sunday 18 May Andrew Marr interviewed Lord Malloch-Brown, Foreign Office Minister

Authorities ready to take 'dramatic steps' to open up, says Lord Malloch-Brown.

Lord Malloch-Brown
Lord Malloch-Brown, Foreign Office Minister

ANDREW MARR: The news coming out Burma continues to be dire. With two aid organisations warning today that thousands of children will die unless the authorities there relent and allow more outside agency help in.

Now Gordon Brown yesterday described the attitude of the Burmese authorities as inhuman.

Last night the British Foreign Office Minister, Mark Malloch-Brown, arrived in Rangoon.

He's the first British Minister to enter the country for 15 years, and he met generals from the ruling junta a few hours ago. I spoke to him just before we came on air and he told me that his visit was a sign that the Burmese authorities could be beginning to accept they need outside assistance.

LORD MALLOCH-BROWN: I think it's a remarkable thing really, we have come in at very short notice and I think it's evidence of the fact that the Burmese have accepted that indeed we come in the spirit of humanitarian assistance, that this is not about politics.

ANDREW MARR: Have you been able to speak to any members of the regime yet?

LORD MALLOCH-BROWN: Absolutely. We've met today with the line ministers who are dealing with the emergency in the delta. I also delivered to them a letter for their No. 1 leader, the senior leader, Than Shwe, from Gordon Brown insisting that this was a humanitarian enterprise and that we'd put politics aside to help the victims of the cyclone. And I think they're responding in kind and treating this on the terms we're offering it.

ANDREW MARR: Mr. Brown has said of course that this is an intolerable situation, and that the regime must be held to account for what they haven't done. Do you agree with that?

LORD MALLOCH-BROWN: Yes, but I think you know what we've got to do now is make sure that people are helped and need reaches them.

And I think in that sense from a standoff at the beginning where we wanted a classic relief operation, with as many western organisations as possible delivering as much help as we could, we found a middle ground where through the leadership of the Asian neighbours such as India and China and the Assian countries like Thailand and Indonesia in partnership with the United Nations, there is now a leadership which the Burmese can accept and we can work through to deliver our assistance.

ANDREW MARR: Well it certainly needs to if the world food programme is right. They say that about half a million people worst affected still have had no food aid at all.

LORD MALLOCH-BROWN: Yeah. I mean there's, I think it's correct that probably not more than about 25 per cent of the caseload of two million or so who need help have so far received it.

So there's a major need here but, you know, when I came in yesterday I saw something that I thought I'd never see which was American C130s, military C130s on the tarmac at Yangon airport with their American pilots at their side unloading relief supplies.

And beside them were British planes that we had chartered, unloading shallow boats to use in the delta to distribute aid across the rivers, unloading plastic sheeting because there's still rains and people have no shelter. So this operation while still running into all kinds of bottlenecks, many of them man-induced rather than natural, nevertheless is now starting to move.

ANDREW MARR: We've all seen these terrible, terrible pictures from the Irrawaddy Delta, have you had any chance at first hand to assess how bad things remain?

LORD MALLOCH-BROWN: Well there's two very diametrically opposed views. The aid workers are saying that from what they are hearing from their own staff and from circumstantial and anecdotal evidence they can pick up.

And from the historic experience of similar disasters in other countries they think there must still be a very high level of unmet need and that's what the photos we're seeing on TV tends to confirm. The Burmese have a more panglossian view where they're arguing that the first needs have been met and that the situation is stabilised in health terms.

And I think, you know, this is is a critical priority to get a comprehensive assessment that all sides agree to, as to what the need is, because otherwise there's going to be a very dangerous debate about the level of need, during it lives may get lost.

ANDREW MARR: There's been a lot of talk in the west, in France and other countries, about actually coming in with a military intervention, ignoring the regime, and directly feeding the people. Do you that we've passed that point, that the regime has responded sufficiently to make that basically fantasy politics?

LORD MALLOCH-BROWN: Well I don't think we should take any options off the table completely. And I think the spirit and sentiment behind this, that when a disaster of this kind occurs in the 21st century we are bound to help, is one that we must not lose as we go through this.

But there is no doubt that a political, a negotiated diplomatic solution which allows access and allows sufficient supplies and workers to get there, is a much more efficient way of delivering succour and assistance quickly, than a forced intervention which would face major political and logistical hurdles. But if it fails then we have to look at other alternatives.

ANDREW MARR: Which would include for instance, forced air drops of food?

LORD MALLOCH-BROWN: Well, you know, forced air drops are a classic case of something which looks good but doesn't really deliver, particularly in flooded areas where the stuff would almost certainly be ruined on point of impact, because it would end up in salinated submerged water, and where there, you know, wouldn't be the help on the ground to kind of effectively distribute it.

ANDREW MARR: And with a lot of aid sort of sitting off the coast - British aid, American aid, French aid in ships, helicopters there - do you think that will start to move into the country now?

LORD MALLOCH-BROWN: Well we've got to see. I mean at the moment the aid is coming in through Yangon airport. I think if there were Asian partners able to tranship into the delta area from ships this may become an option. So we have to negotiate as broad, ambitious an aceess as possible, but recognise it's going to be less than everything we want.

And we're just going to have to see what negotiations in the coming days, by the Asian leaders, by the UN Secretary General, achieves. And I think you're going to see quite dramatic steps by the Burmese to open upl

ANDREW MARR: Time is very short for these people of course, isn't it?

LORD MALLOCH-BROWN: It's extremely short, and that's why this kind of approach of getting stuff out there, and as I say planes have been landing, diplomats who flew out to the region yesterday saw international relief goods reaching people, not yet in sufficient numbers, and acknowledged hundreds of thousands still not yet touched by it. But you know, this is the way for now, if it fails we'll have to look at other options because as I say, the spirit of the right to protect, the fact that the world cannot stand by while mass need of this kind is left untended is one which must drive our actions.

ANDREW MARR: Mark Malloch-Brown, and as you've probably gathered there aren't any facilities to broadcast live pictures from Rangoon.


Please note "The Andrew Marr Show" must be credited if any part of this transcript is used.

NB: This transcript was typed from a recording and not copied from an original script.

Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, the BBC cannot vouch for its accuracy

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