By VIOLET CHO
The Irrawaddy News
Burma’s military government has asked the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) and other UN agencies not to hold press conferences in Bangkok but in Rangoon, according to sources in the former Burmese capital.
Since Cyclone Nargis slammed Burma on May 2-3, the Bangkok-based Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand (FCCT) has hosted several press conferences by UN agencies. The FCCT confirmed that the UN suddenly canceled its planned weekly press briefings on Wednesday last week without giving any reason.
The UN’s decision to suspend its regular press conferences in Bangkok reportedly came after Burma’s military rulers indicated that they preferred Rangoon as the venue for future briefings.
Burmese authorities rarely allow accredited journalists to enter the country, except to cover carefully orchestrated events that highlight the regime’s accomplishments. Local journalists are also prevented by draconian press laws from covering sensitive issues.
Recently, Burmese journalists faced hurdles reporting on international relief efforts after they were told they could not attend a press conference by Surin Pitsuwan, the secretary-general of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), a member of the Tripartite Core Group which is coordinating the relief effort. The group consists of the regional grouping plus the UN and the Burmese junta.
Earlier this week, a spokesperson for a UN agency praised the regime for its contribution to the humanitarian mission in cyclone-hit areas. “The government has allocated a lot of money to relief and recovery,” said UNICEF spokesperson Zafrin Chowdhury, speaking in Rangoon on Monday.
In May, the regime was widely condemned for refusing to issue visas to foreign relief workers. On May 23, after a meeting with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, the junta finally agreed to allow an international relief effort, although it continued to impose restraints on the movements of foreign aid workers.
The Irrawaddy contacted OCHA spokeswoman Amanda Pitt and UN spokesman Richard Horsey about the suspension of press conferences in Bangkok, but they declined to comment on the reason for the move. OCHA representatives in Rangoon also had nothing to say about the change.
Critics of the relief effort say that it is still moving far too slowly. Until recently, OCHA situation reports stated that the aid mission had reached 1.3 million out of an estimated 2.4 million affected people—a figure that remained unchanged through the entire month of June.
In its latest report, released on July 7, OCHA omits the number of people who have so far received aid.