Thursday, 22 May 2008

Dialogue of the deaf!

YANGON: Talks to speed up aid for cyclone-hit were last night termed as 'dialogue of the deaf' as the UN urged Myanmar to focus on saving lives and not politics.

This is a critical moment for Myanmar, warned UN Secretary-GeneralBan Ki-moon, who was set to hold crisis talks with the top-most general in the devastated country's junta.

EU aid chief Louis Michel gave voice to international frustration over aid delays and condemned Myanmar's lack of trust after its military government shunned a US proposal for naval ships to deliver vital supplies.

"You sometimes get the impression that of being in a dialogue of the deaf. It's extremely difficult to reach the person in front of you," Michel added, calling his trip "extremely frustrating".

The UN says 2.5 million survivors of the May 2-3 Cyclone Nargis face hunger, homelessness and potential outbreaks of deadly diseases.

Ban will fly today to Myanmar on a mission to scale up relief efforts and lobby the junta to allow more foreign aid workers into the isolated country.

He said his two-day visit would include a trip to areas devastated by the cyclone and talks with officials, including junta leader Senior General Than Shwe.

Before leaving UN headquarters, Ban said the world body had finally received permission from the junta to use helicopters to carry aid to stranded victims.

"We have received government permission to operate nine World Food Programme (WFP) helicopters, which will allow us to reach areas that have so far been largely inaccessible."

The WFP officials in Bangkok confirmed later that 10 flights would be allowed and would begin making runs from today.

Myanmar's state-controlled media said yesterday that US helicopters or naval ships were not welcome to join the relief effort.

The New Light of Myanmar, a mouthpiece for the ruling junta, said accepting military assistance "comes with strings attached" that are "not acceptable to the people of Myanmar".

The report cited fears of an American invasion aimed at grabbing the country's oil reserves.

The US, as well as France and Great Britain, have naval vessels loaded with humanitarian supplies off the Myanmar coast, waiting for a green light to deliver them. The article did not say whether the French and British supplies would be allowed.

American military aircraft are already sending aid on about five flights a day from Thailand to Yangon.

The New Light of Myanmar did not explain why the regime was willing to accept aid flown on US C-130 cargo planes, with US military personnel on board, but would not allow the warships and helicopters to deliver relief supplies.

So far, the few foreign aid workers allowed inside the country have been banned from areas of the worst devastation in the delta.

"We have a functioning relief programme in place. But so far we have been able to reach only about 25 per cent of the people in need," Ban said.

More than 78,000 people were killed in the storm and 56,000 remain missing.

Ban also planned to attend a meeting of aid donors convened jointly with Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Yangon on Sunday.

Asean Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan said: "The government wants more than $11 billion in aid, but international donors need access to verify the needs."

He also said that Myanmar's Minister of Planning and Economic Development, Soe Tha, had told him that French oil giant Total was willing to transfer aid and equipment from French and US Navy ships waiting in waters near the former Burma. (Gulf Daily News)

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