The Willis family - unable to help those in need in Burma.
The Willis family - unable to help those in need in Burma. Stuart Corlett

Lismore man pleads with Burmese generals

HE'S a veteran of the 2004 Asian tsunami and specialises in helping victims of natural disasters.

However, Burma's ruling junta has left Lismore man Nathan Willis sitting on its doorstep as he pleads for a chance to help some of the one million survivors of Cyclone Nargis, which tore the country apart last week.

As Burmese people struggle with the devastating aftermath of the cyclone, aid organisations from around the world are still struggling to get access to the country.

Mr Willis, who these days is based in Chang Mai in north Thailand, is the national director of Partners Relief and Development Australia, a Christian relief organisation that assists refugees, displaced persons and victims of natural disasters.

Mr Willis flew to Bangkok in Thailand on Wednesday to try to get a visa to enter Burma. Yesterday he was still trying.

"It's extremely frustrating and very difficult to keep your cool when the embassy is telling you 'no' in a thousand different ways," he said.

However, he said things looked a little brighter yesterday after they received a letter of invitation from people they worked with in the Burmese capital of Rangoon.

"Hopefully that will be enough. We'll start lodging visa applications again. They're still going to take three or four days to process," he said.

Mr Willis said he had 10 medical people and a similar number of logistical and support staff working with him trying to get visas.

Despite their frustration with the reluctant Burmese bureaucracy, Mr Willis said they had other ways of getting assistance to people in need.

"We have a way to get supplies in overland so we were able to get seven tonnes of food in by truck," he said.

"Some people we work with have multiple entry visas, so we were also able to send money and satellite phones in yesterday.

"We should start having better communications which will help in determining what sort of things we can get in.

"The biggest problem at the moment is the government is not coming to the party."

Reports from the United Nations, which is also being frustrated in its relief efforts, suggest the military government wants to keep a short leash on visiting aid workers because it fears they will try to influence a referendum vote for a new constitution, due on Saturday. The election has been postponed until May 24 in cyclone-affected areas.

The latest estimate of the death toll has been put at around 22,000 and another 41,000 missing.

There are fears the number of dead could go as high as 100,000 as water-born diseases and exposure to the elements take their toll.

To put that in perspective, 100,000 is about the number of Australians killed in both world wars.

Nathan Willis is flying back to Chang Mai in Thailand, where he said his team would regroup and continue their efforts while they wait for their visas to be processed.

"This is going to play out over the next few weeks. Even if we don't get in until next Friday, we can communicate with our guys on the ground and determine priorities and send money overland with people who have visas," he said.

Transport is another big issue, with roads and bridges completely washed away in some parts of the country. Mr Willis said they had one of their big donors willing to fly supplies in, but they were unable to get air clearance.

Want to know more?
UN says 1.5m people affected in Burma.
Cyclone's devastation is felt in Toowoomba.

Your chance to see the best gardens in Lismore

Your chance to see the best gardens in Lismore

Learn the secrets of the region's green thumbs

'No one said anything': Advocate calls on police to step in

premium_icon 'No one said anything': Advocate calls on police to step in

Advocate hopes inquiry will encourage police to call out misconduct

Local Partners