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Myanmar relents, will allow relief help

Myanmar, facing global outrage for spurning international assistance, appeared to relent Monday, saying it would allow its Asian neighbors to oversee the distribution of relief to cyclone survivors.
Image: Survivors of Cyclone Nargis
Survivors of Cyclone Nargis rush to receive donated goods from a monastery outside Yangon on Monday. AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Myanmar’s junta, facing global outrage for spurning international assistance, appeared to relent Monday, saying it would allow its Asian neighbors to oversee the distribution of foreign relief to cyclone survivors.

It also approved a visit by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and prepared to host a meeting of aid donors, while claiming that losses from the May 2-3 disaster exceeded $10 billion.

A three-day official period of mourning was to begin Tuesday for the dead, which numbered more than 78,000, according to official figures. Another 56,000 people are missing.

Conditions, especially in the hard-hit low-lying Irrawaddy Delta, remain precarious for survivors, who face disease, malnutrition and exposure to the elements.

Heavy rain fell again Monday, said the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, noting that such weather can have the benefit of providing clean water for those able to catch the downpour with plastic sheeting.

Remote areas most vulnerable
“However, the rain for many others simply adds to the misery as they look forward to their 18th night in often wretched conditions,” the agency said. “In addition, access to already relatively inaccessible locations is set to remain very difficult.”

The organization remained concerned about the distribution of relief supplies, saying “Reports indicate that in most of the bigger affected townships, basic relief and food is available but much less so in the more remote areas.”

It added that there seemed to be problems even at some of the temporary relief camps set up by the government: “While significant relief is getting through, there are indications of mounting frustration among many displaced communities.”

Myanmar, responding to entreaties from its Southeast Asia neighbors, promised Monday that it would let them into the cyclone-devastated areas to oversee and help distribute foreign assistance.

In Singapore, an emergency meeting of foreign ministers from the 10 countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations agreed to set up an ASEAN-led task force for distributing foreign aid.

“This mechanism will facilitate the effective distribution and utilization of assistance from the international community, including the expeditious and effective deployment of relief workers, especially health and medical personnel,” said Singapore’s Foreign Minister George Yeo.

Myanmar agreed to open its doors to medical teams from all ASEAN countries, Yeo said. ASEAN member Thailand had already sent teams in, as did non-ASEAN neighbors India and China.

Image: A young victim of Cyclone Nargis stands in line
A young victim of Cyclone Nargis stands in line to receive donated goods from a local donor at a monastery outside the capital of Yangon, Myanmar on Monday May 19, 2008. Myanmar's military regime, which has barred almost all foreigners from its cyclone disaster zone, allowed the U.N.'s humanitarian chief into the Irrawaddy delta for a brief tour today, a U.N. official said.(AP Photo)AP

Myanmar Foreign Minister Nyan Win told the meeting that losses from the cyclone are expected to be “well over US$10 billion.”

ASEAN and the U.N. jointly announced an ASEAN-UN International Pledging Conference to seek some of the needed funding, to be held this Sunday in Yangon.

“The Conference will focus on the needs of those affected by the cyclone, and seek international support and financial assistance for the international humanitarian response to meet the most urgent challenges, as well as longer term recovery efforts,” said their announcement.

U.N. chief arrives Thursday
British Secretary of State for International Development Douglas Alexander welcomed ASEAN’s initiative but add that his government is “continuing to press the Burmese government to accept direct assistance in the affected areas from the UK and other major donors.”

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon will arrive in Yangon on Thursday and stay until Friday night, when he will fly to Bangkok. He will return to Yangon on Sunday to co-chair the pledging conference, U.N. spokeswoman Michele Montas said in New York. He will tour the battered delta during his visit, but it is not yet known which officials he will meet.

Earlier, junta leader Senior Gen. Than Shwe refused to take telephone calls from Ban and had not responded to letters from him, Montas said.

John Holmes, the U.N. undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs, flew Monday by helicopter to the delta before returning to Myanmar’s largest city, Yangon, to meet with international aid agencies, said a U.N. official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak with the media.

But the United Nations said the rest of its foreign staff were still barred from the delta and it described conditions there as “terrible,” with hundreds of thousands of cyclone victims suffering from hunger, disease and lack of shelter.

The world body was seeing “some progress in terms of pipelines starting to come through” but the aid operation was still unsatisfactory,” said Amanda Pitt, a U.N. spokeswoman in Bangkok.