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Myanmar begins three-day mourning period

Myanmar began three days of mourning for some 78,000 cyclone victims Tuesday, but some residents frustrated with the junta's response to the disaster called it a symbolic gesture that lacked sincerity.
Image: A group of homeless residents
Homeless residents stay at a school shelter on the outskirts of Yangon, Myanmar, on Tuesday, as the country begins a three-day mourning period.AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Myanmar began three days of mourning for some 78,000 cyclone victims Tuesday, but some residents frustrated with the junta's response to the disaster called it a symbolic gesture that lacked sincerity.

Despite the government's apparent acquiescence to accept more outside help, most foreign aid workers were still banned from the storm-devastated area and the United Nations said only 20 percent of the survivors had received some form of international assistance.

Flags at government offices, schools and large hotels were lowered to half-staff, but there was no period of silence. Shops were open as usual and many people in Yangon said they had little idea of what the government-announced mourning entailed. Others were angry.

"I don't think flying flags at half-mast is going to help. If they are sincere, they should welcome help from everyone," said Zin Moe, 32, who sells clothes. "They are not letting in aid quickly enough and people are angry."

The military-led regime said Monday it would allow its Asian neighbors to oversee distribution of foreign relief to survivors of Cyclone Nargis, which battered the country May 2-3.

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

Debating debt
One of the world's poorest nations, Myanmar may have problems covering such losses.

And World Bank Managing Director Juan Jose Daboub said Tuesday the bank will not give any financial aid or loans because Myanmar has failed to repay its debts for a decade.

Daboub said the World Bank is providing technical support to assess damage in Myanmar and help plan economic reconstruction.

"But the bank cannot legally provide any (financial) resources to Myanmar because it is in arrears with the bank since 1998," he said in Singapore.

The state-owned media reported Tuesday that junta leader Senior Gen. Than Shwe met storm victims in the hard-hit Irrawaddy delta Monday, saying the regime had "promptly carried out rescue and rehabilitation tasks."

The general said the government has spent more than $45.5 million on relief operations, has met immediate needs such as food, shelter and health care and is moving into the reconstruction phase.

But foreign aid agencies and the United Nations were less upbeat. They said only some 500,000 of the 2.4 million storm victims have received some form of international assistance.

"It is clear that the emergency phase is set to continue for some time," the United Nations said.

Struggle for survival
The official death toll stands at about 78,000, with another 56,000 people missing. Conditions in the low-lying delta remain precarious, with survivors facing disease, malnutrition and exposure to the elements.

A Myanmar doctor returning from the delta said refugees in the bigger towns were receiving some aid and medical care but expressed concern for those in outlying villages.

Villagers were still trickling into the towns because they had received no aid, she said.

"We saw one young girl yesterday. Her lips and her nails were blue. She looked like she was going to die," said Tin Sein on Tuesday. "People who haven't eaten or drunk clean water and also completely exposed to the rains and storm."

"I don't think anyone has a good picture right now of the overall situation," she said. "People give different facts and figures. It's a major problem."

Foreign aid
Myanmar, responding to entreaties from its Southeast Asia neighbors, promised Monday it would let them into devastated areas to oversee and help in the provision of foreign assistance.

In Singapore, an emergency meeting of foreign ministers from the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations agreed to set up a task force for redistributing foreign aid.

Myanmar agreed to open its doors to medical teams from all ASEAN countries, Singapore Foreign Minister George Yeo said. ASEAN member Thailand already has sent teams, as have non-ASEAN neighbors India and China.

U.N. chief Ban will arrive in Yangon on Thursday and tour the battered delta, U.N. spokeswoman Michele Montas said in New York. He plans to fly to Bangkok on Friday night, then will return to Yangon on Sunday to co-chair the conference.

Earlier, 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 Yangon to meet with international aid agencies.

The United Nations said the rest of its foreign staff were still barred from the delta.