Friday, 16 May 2008

Burma: High level donors' meeting planned

UN humanitarian chief John Holmes plans to travel to cyclone-hit Burma to persuade the junta to open up to foreign aid, as southeast Asia neighbours prepared for donor talks.

Holmes was preparing his trip as Burma's Southeast Asian neighbours geared for talks aimed at convening a high-level donors meeting, which UN sources said could take place in Bangkok on May 24.

Holmes, who heads the UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, has requested a visa and should be travelling "in the next five to six days," said UN spokeswoman Michele Montas.

Junta: No foreign aid workers

The trip comes as Burma's ruling junta dug in its heels two weeks after the deadly Cyclone Nargis struck, repeating that it would not bow to pressure to let in foreign aid workers.

With at least 71,000 dead or missing and another two million in dire need of emergency aid, the generals again rebuffed calls to accept the foreign relief workers needed to quickly deliver food, water, shelter and medicine.

"We will stop at nothing in trying to pressure the regime into doing what any regime should have done long ago," British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said in London.

"And there should be nothing, nothing that stops that aid getting to the people of the country now."

Singapore summit

UN officials are waiting for the emergency ministerial meeting the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries has scheduled for Monday in Singapore to work out details of a broader aid donors conference on Burma.

The ASEAN countries "are going to be discussing where that pledging conference (for assistance to cyclone victims) can take place and who can participate," according to Montas.

A UN source said the meeting would be high-level, probably at the ministerial level, and would likely take place in Southeast Asia – probably Bangkok -- with May 24 suggested.

Nargis hit overnight on May 2, tearing through the rice-growing Irrawaddy Delta and wiping out entire villages with powerful winds and giant waves that turned much of the area into a disease-infested swamp.

Delta region sealed off

At first, journalists returned from the area with tales of misery -- corpses rotting in the water as untold thousands of survivors lined the streets begging for food.

Now the junta has sealed off the region to reporters and insists the impoverished country, once a rich British colony known as Burma, can stand on its own.

The government-controlled New Light of Myanmar newspaper said the country's people could rebuild the devastated region without help.

"They will not rely too much on international assistance and will reconstruct the nation on (a) self-reliance basis," it said.

International leaders have lambasted Burma's government for not opening the door to aid groups.

"We are way behind the curve compared to any other international disaster in recent memory," said Mark Malloch-Brown, a top British diplomat.

"I cannot recall a relief operation where, at least the international response, has been subjected to such delays," he said in Bangkok.

Junta: 'Victory in referendum'

Despite the massive humanitarian emergency, the military regime on Thursday announced victory in a national referendum on a new constitution with 92.4 percent of the ballots.

It said the turnout in the vote, held last Saturday with parts of the country still underwater and tens of thousands of people unaccounted for, was 99 percent. Affected areas go to the polls later this month.

The regime said the vote, the first here since 1990, was a step on the road to democracy, but critics say it will only tighten the military's grip on power.

Monasteries cleared

Meanwhile the government is pushing survivors out of monasteries where they fled after the storm -- perhaps wary of the role Buddhist monks played in last year's abortive anti-government uprising.

Monks and evacuees from the main city Rangoon as well as Labutta, one of the hardest-hit delta towns, said thousands of people were being forced out of monasteries.

"Where do they want us to go?" said 30-year-old Gangamani. "We have no house any more, and it is raining."

New rains have added to the misery for increasingly desperate people at risk of everything from snakebites and pneumonia to outright starvation.

"Half the people displaced aren't in actual buildings," said Kathryn Rawe, spokeswoman for Save the Children, an aid group. "They're basically under plastic, and it's raining. It breaks your heart."'

Source: AFP-SBS

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