May 9, 2008 / 6:17 AM / 11 years ago

Myanmar embassy takes a holiday, prolonging visa wait

BANGKOK (Reuters) - Western aid experts in Bangkok will have to wait at least four more days to get into Myanmar to help cyclone victims because the Myanmar embassy in the Thai capital has taken a local holiday on Friday.

A villager sits outside her Cyclone Nargis damaged house in Myanmar's village of U Khai-Hlaing outside Labutta, in Irrawaddy Division May 9, 2008. REUTERS/Stringer

U.N. officials and travel agents said they had been told by the Myanmar embassy that any visa applications would not be processed until Monday or Tuesday, adding to the frustration of western relief workers eager to help the 1.5 million victims.

“This is a four-day wait which just should not happen,” said Paul Risley, spokesman for the U.N. World Food Programme. “This is too long to wait for people whose lives are at such a precarious balance.”

Thailand is observing an annual ancient Brahminical rite, or ploughing ceremony, dating back around 700 years heralding the start of the new rice-growing season. Friday was a holiday for civil servants but financial markets and businesses were open.

Nearly a week after a disaster that diplomats and aid experts believe may have killed 100,000 people, relief workers were still in the dark about visas, which are tightly guarded by the ruling military deeply suspicious of the outside world [ID: nBKK306906].

The Myanmar Embassy in Bangkok usually does not accept phone calls and there was no response on Friday. A travel agent was told the embassy was closed and visa applications would not be processed until Tuesday.

Myanmar has allowed a handful of cargo flights from several Asian countries and two U.N. flights to land in the former capital Yangon and unload emergency supplies, but has responded slowly to allowing westerners to enter.

U.N. humanitarian agency officials said 30 to 40 “critical” U.N. and other aid agency staff were in the visa queue, most of them in Bangkok.

The United Nations estimated that 1.5 million people have been “severely affected” by Cyclone Nargis that struck last Saturday followed by huge waves that virtually destroyed villages.

(Reporting by Grant McCool; Editing by Bill Tarrant)

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