Myanmar agrees to allow in "all" aid workers
Naypyidaw, Myanmar, May 23, 2008
In an apparent breakthrough for delivering help to millions of Myanmar's cyclone survivors, the military government agreed to allow in "all" aid workers, UN chief Ban Ki-moon said on Friday.
The UN Secretary-General met junta supremo Than Shwe in his remote new capital of Naypyidaw for more than two hours to ask him to permit more foreign expertise for the victims of Cyclone Nargis.
"I had a very good meeting with the Senior General and particularly on these aid workers," Ban said. "He has agreed to allow all the aid workers."
Asked by a reporter whether he considered it a breakthrough, Ban replied: "Yes, I think so, he has agreed to allow all aid workers regardless of nationalities."
At the start of the meeting the 75-year-old Senior General's stony-faced silence gave no clues as to whether he would overcome his deep suspicions of the outside world and its offers of help after the cyclone struck three weeks ago, leaving nearly 134,000 dead or missing.
He was in dark green trousers and a shirt covered with military decorations -- as he was when he emerged this week from Naypyidaw, 250 miles (390 km) north of Yangon, to inspect the destruction and army relief effort and meet survivors.
Ban saw the extent of the disaster for himself on Thursday, flying in a helicopter over flooded rice fields and destroyed homes in the delta, the former "rice bowl of Asia" that bore the brunt of the May 2 storm and its 12 foot (3.5 metre) sea surge.
Cyclone Nargis one of the worst cyclones to hit Asia. Three weeks on, aid is still only trickling in due to the junta's restrictions on foreign relief operations.
Unless the generals open their doors, thousands more people could die of hunger and disease, disaster experts say.
"I am so sorry, but don't lose your hope," Ban told one woman as he peered into a blue tent at the Kyondah relief camp 75 km south of Yangon.
"The United Nations is here to help you. The whole world is trying to help Myanmar."
Government officials told him the situation was under control, reiterating the line in army-controlled media that the immediate emergency relief phase of the disaster was over and it was now time to look to reconstruction.
"All efforts are being made towards the relief of the victims and for the country to soon return to normal," Energy Minister Brigadier General Lun Thi told Ban at the camp, the same one diplomats were shown at the weekend.
The junta has accepted relief flights into Yangon from many countries, including the United States, its fiercest critic, but has largely kept Western disaster experts out of the delta.
However, it has allowed a senior US aid official on a three-day government tour of the area. Washington said the permission was an "opening, but it is not sufficient".
Medical teams from India, China, Thailand, Laos and Bangladesh are working in the delta along with thousands of local medics and other volunteers, state media said.
Myanmar television also broadcast footage of Ban's official tour, showing shaking hands with and talking to survivors.
Prime Minister Thein Sein was quoted as saying "politics should not be intertwined with humanitarian needs" and the government was not impeding the flow of aid.
British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said there were no strings attached to offers of assistance.
"This is a humanitarian response being made to a natural disaster that is being turned into a man-made catastrophe. We are trying to send aid there for purely humanitarian purposes. There is no ulterior motive," Miliband said on a trip with US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in California.-Reuters
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