Asian aid to reach Burma cyclone victims

Burma’s neighbours appeared to have reached a compromise with the regime on Monday that would finally allow significant amounts of international aid to reach the survivors of the deadly cyclone, more than two weeks after it struck.

An Asian-led task force will be formed to help funnel relief into the isolated country and bring life-saving supplies to the 2,4-million people gravely affected by Cyclone Nargis.

But following an emergency meeting of foreign ministers from the Association of South-East Asian Nations (Asean), including Burma, the bloc acknowledged there would be no unfettered access for United Nations disaster experts and other aid agencies anxious to alleviate survivors’ suffering.

The hope that urgently needed aid would reach the cyclone’s victims came as the UN’s humanitarian affairs chief, Sir John Holmes, was taken on a tour of the Irrawaddy Delta, including the towns of Laputta and Bogalay where most of the estimated 128 000 victims perished.

Holmes is due to meet junta leaders on Tuesday, including the Prime Minister, Lieutenant General Thein Sein. He will hand over a letter from Ban Ki-moon, the UN Secretary General, for the junta’s strongman, General Than Shwe.

Ban is due to arrive in Burma as early as Wednesday. His visit is hugely symbolic, reflecting the gravity of the crisis. Shwe refused to take Ban’s calls following the UN secretary general’s criticism of the regime’s foot-dragging over accepting international help.

The regime has also invited other regional leaders to inspect the devastation, which its foreign minister, Nyan Win, said could cost £5-billion. It announced three days of mourning, starting on Tuesday, when the national flag will be flown at half-mast across the country.

Against the backdrop of apparent movement by the regime, the international community said some more aid was getting to the survivors. But just a fifth of those affected have been reached, with up to 150 000 people living in 120 makeshift camps where the lack of clean water and sanitation remain a huge risk.

Britain’s Minister for Africa, Asia and the UN, Lord Malloch-Brown, said despite its recent softening towards some outside assistance, Burma was still playing down the scale of the humanitarian crisis.

Malloch-Brown, who recently returned from Rangoon, said the attitude of some Burmese ministers he met was: ”What crisis? All the humanitarian needs are met. What we need is reconstruction help.”

He said the junta flew diplomats out over devastated countryside to a small but ”pristine” relief camp, to underpin its claims. But he said the most generous estimate was that aid was reaching 500 000 out of a total population in need of up to 2,5-million. He also called for an urgent needs assessment using aerial surveys before an international donors’ conference next Monday.

In a further sign that Burma’s attitude to outside assistance was thawing, the regime agreed to accept 30 medical personnel from each of the nine other Asean countries. Doctors from Thailand, China, India and Bangladesh are already helping cyclone victims in the delta.

While it remained unclear how quickly or effectively the Asean mechanism would play its role, the Asian countries believe that a more measured approach rather than the blunt criticism and threats of the international community would produce a way out of the deadlock.

”We will establish a mechanism so that aid from all over the world can flow into Burma,” said George Yeo, Singapore’s Foreign Minister. ”This mechanism will facilitate the effective distribution … of assistance from the international community, including the expeditious and effective deployment of relief workers, especially health and medical personnel.”

But it was clear that legions of UN specialists vainly waiting for visas to assist in distributing relief supplies are unlikely to be allowed into Burma after Yeo said their applications would be reviewed by Burma on a case-by-case basis. ”There will not be an uncontrolled entry of foreign personnel into [Burma],” Yeo said. — Â

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