Thursday, 22 May 2008

UN chief tours cyclone-hit Burma

By John Heilprin, AP

The UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon flew into Burma's disaster zone today as he pressed the country's leaders to open the doors to critical international aid for some 2.5 million cyclone survivors.

In a meeting with Prime Minister Thein Sein, Ban stressed that international aid experts needed to be rushed in because the crisis had exceeded Burma's national capacity, according to a UN official at the talks.

Ban was then flown by helicopter to the cyclone-ravaged Irrawaddy delta, the country's rice bowl, where most of the 78,000 deaths from Cyclone Nargis occurred. Another 56,000 are officially listed as missing.

"The United Nations and all the international community stand ready to help to overcome the tragedy," Ban said after arriving in the country Thursday. "The main purpose of my being here is to demonstrate my solidarity."

As Ban began his visit, foreign aid agencies stressed the need to quickly reach some 2.5 million survivors, many of them 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 the U.S.-based Refugees International. "And yet right offshore, right here in Thailand, we have the means to save these people."

Ban met for nearly 1 1/2 hours with Thein Sein as well as with international aid agencies in Yangon, Burma's largest city.

In contrast to reports of an emergency situation in the delta, Thein Sein told Ban that the relief phase of the government's operation was ending and focus had now shifted to reconstruction, said the UN official, requesting anonymity for reasons of protocol.

The latest report from the International Red Cross said that in the Bogale area of the delta, rivers and ponds were still full of corpses, and that many people in remote areas had not yet received any aid.

Ban told the prime minister that mutual trust was needed between Burma and the international community, which was prepared to send in airplanes and helicopters to bolster the relief effort, the official said.

Before talks began, the secretary-general visited Yangon's Shwedagon pagoda, regarded as the spiritual heart of the country.

"I praise the will, resilience and the courage of the people of Burma. I bring a message of hope for the people of Burma," he said as bells chimed.

Following local tradition, Ban removed his shoes and socks and padded barefoot around the pagoda, handing the shrine's trustees a donation for cyclone victims.

With Foreign Minister Nyan Win present, Ban said, "I hope your people and government will closely coordinate so that the flow of aid and aid workers' activities can be carried out in a more systematic way."

Security for the secretary-general's visit was heavy, with dozens of armed riot police dotting the road from the airport into the city.

UN official Dan Baker said junta leader Senior Gen. Than Shwe would meet with Ban on Friday at Naypyitaw, the capital built by the military in a remote area of central Burma. Ban said earlier that Than Shwe had refused to take his telephone calls and did not respond to two letters.

Among a number of Yangon citizens interviewed, few were optimistic about results from Ban's visit.

"I doubt he could do much. The UN has no power here," said Aung Myint Oe, a service industry worker.

Kyaw Htun Htun, a local businessman, predicted that "they (the generals) won't care what the UN says."

But some thought just the visit of Ban, the first secretary-general to visit Burma in an official capacity, could make a difference.

"His presence as a senior UN official is significant. It means there is enough concern in the international community to raise this to that level," said Richard Rumsey, a senior staffer of the aid agency World Vision in Thailand.

"I do feel without a doubt there is not enough being done. There has been huge frustration in getting enough aid to people quickly enough," he said.

The UN says up to 2.5 million cyclone survivors face hunger, homelessness and potential outbreaks of deadly diseases, especially in the low-lying delta. But so far, only about 25 per cent of those in need have been reached by aid.

"There needs to be more equipment. There needs to be more flights coming in. There needs to more boats out there to reach remote areas," said Jemilah Mahmood of the aid agency Mercy Malaysia in Bangkok.

Burma is still reluctant to accept more than a handful of experienced foreign rescue and disaster relief workers.

Following Ban into the delta will be representatives of 29 nations, including Japan, Singapore and Thailand, who have been invited to Burma by the regime. The group, which includes government officials, aid officials and private-sector donors, will visit the region Friday.

Ban said Tuesday that the UN had finally received permission from the junta to use nine World Food Program helicopters to carry aid to stranded victims in inaccessible areas. WFP officials in Bangkok confirmed that 10 flights would be allowed beginning Thursday.

A state-controlled newspaper said Wednesday that U.S. helicopters and naval ships were not welcome to join the relief effort.

The United States, as well as France and Great Britain, have naval vessels loaded with humanitarian supplies — and the means to deliver them — off Burma's coast, awaiting a green light to deliver them.

The New Light of Burma, a mouthpiece for the junta, said accepting military-linked assistance "comes with strings attached" that are "not acceptable to the people of Burma." It hinted at fears of an American invasion aimed at grabbing the country's oil reserves. The article did not say whether French and British supplies would be allowed.

The regime has been letting US military C-130 cargo planes fly in relief goods.

The Independent

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