YANGON, Myanmar (IHT): U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon headed Friday to the crucial meeting of his Myanmar mission, hoping to persuade the country's inflexible junta leader to fully open up to international aid for 2.5 million cyclone survivors.
Ban flew to the remote capital of Naypyitaw, 250 miles (400 kilometers) north of Yangon, after witnessing some of the cyclone's devastation during a carefully choreographed tour Thursday.
The U.N. chief was to meet with the most powerful man in the country, Senior Gen. Than Shwe, who had earlier refused to answer Ban's telephone calls or letters.
Highest on Ban's agenda is urging Than Shwe to allow an unimpeded influx of foreign aid and experts to reach survivors, most of them women and children, at growing risk of starvation, disease and exposure to monsoon rains.
By the military government's count, some 78,000 people were killed by the May 2-3 Cyclone Nargis, and another 56,000 are unaccounted for.
In his talks, Ban may also bring up the fate of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, whose latest period of detention expires Monday. A string of U.N. envoys have in the past failed to spring the democracy icon from house arrest, confronting a junta that has proved virtually impervious to outside pressure.
The 76-year-old Than Shwe — reclusive, superstitious and known as "the bulldog" for his stubbornness — has held virtually unassailable power since 1992.
Ban's firsthand look at the devastation wrought by the storm left the secretary-general shaken Thursday, even though the areas to which he was taken were far from the worst-hit.
"I'm very upset by what I've seen," Ban told reporters, after a walk through a makeshift relief camp where 500 people huddled in blue tents at Kyondah village in Dedaye township, about 75 kilometers (45 miles) southwest of Yangon, Myanmar's largest city.
Myanmar's military regime have been keen to show it has the relief effort under control despite spurning the help of foreign disaster experts, and trotted out officials to give statistics-laden lectures to make their point.
But the U.N. says up to 2.5 million cyclone survivors face hunger, homelessness and potential outbreaks of deadly diseases, especially in the lower-lying areas of the Irrawaddy Delta close to the sea. It estimates that aid has reached only about 25 percent of them.
The places Ban visited, the Kyondah Relief Camp, and the town of Mawlamyinegyun, an aid distribution point, seemed orderly and well organized.
But the destruction in the areas around them was relatively mild compared to that further southwest in the townships of Labutta and Bogalay. Officials gave no explanation of why Ban was not taken to those areas, where the preponderance of dead and missing are reported.
The International Red Cross said rivers and ponds in Bogalay remained full of corpses, and that many people in remote areas had received no aid.
Kyondah — which has electricity and clean water — is somewhat of a showcase. The camp's inhabitants had cooking pots and blankets that appeared to be new. It was also selected for visits by senior junta members and representatives of foreign embassies and international aid organizations last week.
The storm's destruction was more obvious from the air.
The two helicopters carrying Ban's party flew over seemingly endless fields that had been flooded, villages with destroyed houses, rivers swollen past their banks, people huddled on rooftops, in tent villages or taking to boats.
U.N. officials traveling with Ban said they were discussing with Chinese authorities whether Ban could tour the earthquake zone in Sichuan directly after leaving Myanmar. The officials requested anonymity, citing protocol.
The trip, which has not been finalized, would give Ban the chance to compare the two countries' responses and urge China — Myanmar's biggest ally — to put its weight behind opening the flow of aid workers.
As Ban began his visit, foreign aid agencies stressed the need to quickly reach survivors suffering from disease, hunger and lack of shelter.
"In 30-plus years of humanitarian emergency work this is by far — by far — the largest case of emergency need we've ever seen," said Lionel Rosenblatt, president of U.S.-based Refugees International.
Yangon citizens did not seem optimistic that Ban's visit would make a difference.
"Don't just talk, you must take action," said Eain Daw Bar Tha, abbot of a Buddhist monastery on Yangon's outskirts. "The U.N. must directly help the people with helicopters to bring food, clothes and clean water to the really damaged places."