U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon surveyed devastated sections of Myanmar's Irrawaddy delta on Thursday and said he was very upset by the conditions of cyclone survivors.
Ban went on a four-hour helicopter trip that touched down at several makeshift settlements of refugees from the May 2-3 storm. He is one of a handful of foreigners allowed to see the zone first hand.
Ban and his entourage flew over miles of badly damaged rice fields, collapsed and flooded houses, downed trees and overturned boats, rivers swollen past their banks and people huddled on rooftops or in makeshift tent villages.
Ban was first taken to a village called Kyondah, where 500 people huddled in just over 100 blue tents. The camp was set up on May 12 — ten days after the storm hit.
Ban, who spoke to some camp residents, said: "I'm very upset by what I've seen."
The settlement is somewhat of a showpiece. Visits by senior junta members and representatives of foreign embassies and aid organizations last week were publicized in the state-controlled media.
The victims had standard-issue cooking pots and blankets. The equipment looked new.
Some foreign aid reaching victims
The camp's medical tent contained a number of supplies that, as one of Ban's aides noted, included some material from UNICEF, Turkey and another country — evidence that some foreign aid was reaching victims as intended.
Foreign relief agencies say many parts of the delta — and even some areas close to Yangon, the country's biggest city — have not received sufficient relief supplies.
The Irrawaddy delta, the country's rice bowl, is where most of the 78,000 deaths from the cyclone occurred. Another 56,000 people are listed as missing
In a meeting earlier with Prime Minister Lt. Gen. Thein Sein, Ban stressed that international aid experts should be rushed in because the crisis had exceeded Myanmar's national capacity, according to a U.N. official at the talks.
"The United Nations and all the international community stand ready to help to overcome the tragedy," Ban said. "The main purpose of my being here is to demonstrate my solidarity."
Activists called on Ban to meet with detained pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi and seek her release. The Nobel Peace Prize laureate has been confined to her Yangon villa for most of the last 18 years and her current period of detention is due to expire Monday.
Such a meeting was not on Ban's official itinerary.
"This crisis has highlighted the desperate need for democratic and accountable government in Burma," the Burma Campaign UK said in a statement. "Ban Ki-moon must meet with Aung San Suu Kyi."
As Ban began his visit, foreign aid agencies and Myanmar citizens stressed the need to quickly reach survivors 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 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.
In contrast to reports of appalling conditions in the delta, Thein Sein told Ban that the relief phase of the government's operation was ending and the focus had shifted to reconstruction, the U.N. official at the talks said, requesting anonymity for reasons of protocol.
Basic relief works needs to be done
A U.S. government spokesman said that regardless of what the next phase is called, a vast amount of basic relief work remains to be done.
"Whatever you call it, there are literally millions of people who, as far as we can tell, are still not able to live their normal lives and are in danger from the aftermath of the cyclone," Tom Casey, a State Department spokesman, said Thursday.
The latest report from the International Red Cross said rivers and ponds in the delta's Bogalay area were full of corpses, and that many people in remote areas had received no aid.
Ban said mutual trust was needed between Myanmar and the international community, which was prepared to send in planes and helicopters to help, the official said.
U.N. officials, traveling with Ban, said they are discussing with Chinese authorities the possibility of Ban touring the earthquake zone in Sichuan directly after Myanmar. The officials requested anonymity, citing protocol.
The trip, which has not been finalized, would give Ban the chance to compare the two country's responses and urge China — Myanmar's biggest ally — to put its weight behind opening the flow of aid workers.
Before talks with Thein Sein, 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 Myanmar. I bring a message of hope for the people of Myanmar," he said as bells chimed.
Heavy security for Ban
Security for Ban's visit was heavy, with dozens of armed riot police dotting the road from the airport to the city.
U.N. official Dan Baker said junta leader Senior Gen. Than Shwe and Ban would meet Friday at Naypyitaw, the administrative capital built by the military in a remote area of central Myanmar. Ban earlier said 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 that Ban's visit would make a difference.
"I doubt he could do much. The U.N. 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 U.N. says."
"The government has not helped us at all," said Eain Daw Bar Tha, abbot of a Buddhist monastery on Yangon's outskirts, pointing to a light bulb on the ceiling. "It has been 20 days since the storm, but the electricity is still not working."
The U.N. says up to 2.5 million cyclone survivors face hunger, homelessness and potential outbreaks of deadly diseases, especially in the low-lying delta. Aid has reached only about 25 percent of them.
"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.
Myanmar 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 Myanmar by the regime. The group, which includes government officials, aid officials and private-sector donors, will visit the region Friday.
Ban said Tuesday the junta had finally granted the U.N. permission to use nine World Food Program helicopters to carry aid to people stranded in inaccessible areas. WFP officials in Bangkok confirmed 10 flights would be allowed beginning Thursday.