Ban heads for Asia on Burma aid mission

United Nations chief Ban Ki-moon headed to south-east Asia on Wednesday on a mission to secure more help for cyclone victims in Burma, whose military rulers have finally granted an aid agency the use of helicopters to deliver supplies.

Before leaving New York, Ban said he hoped to meet reclusive junta supremo Than Shwe, who emerged from his bunker-like new capital 390km north of Rangoon to see the destruction for himself and meet victims — two weeks after the disaster.

Diplomats say his rare appearances in public in the recent days could be a sign of the top brass realising the enormity of the destruction of Cyclone Nargis, one of the worst to hit Asia with nearly 134 000 people dead or missing.

The UN says up to 2,4-million people are struggling to survive in the Irrawaddy Delta and Rangoon.

The UN World Food Programme said the first of nine helicopters would arrive in Rangoon on Thursday.

”These helicopters will provide critical life-saving capacity to bring urgently needed relief supplies to cyclone victims deep in the delta,” spokesperson Marcus Prior said.

With each day it appears the junta is making small, but in the case of one of the world’s most closed countries, unprecedented concessions to foreign governments and relief agencies appealing for more access to victims in the devastated delta.

However, on the streets of Rangoon there was little hope the visit of UN Secretary General Ban makes much difference to the behaviour of a military that has ruled the country’s 53-million people for the last 46 years with an iron grip.

”I’m not really sure whether there will be any impact. The authorities seem to be more conciliatory these days, but it could be all talk and no action,” one 30-year-old Burmese relief volunteer said.

Like most people, he asked not to be identified for fear of reprisals.

Mourning

Flags across Burma flew at half mast on Wednesday for a second day of an official three-day mourning period for the victims of the May 2 cyclone and sea surge that destroyed villages and turned roads into rivers of mud.

The generals, whose distrust of the outside world is even greater after worldwide outrage at last year’s crackdown on democracy protests, have consistently declined offers of Thai, Malaysia and Singaporean military helicopters, UN sources say.

Ban, who is due in Bangkok later on Wednesday and in Rangoon on Thursday, said he welcomed the generals’ ”recent flexibility” but added that aid workers had so far been able to reach only around 25% of those in need.

A donors’ pledging conference in Rangoon on Sunday would be crucial for longer-term rebuilding, Ban said.

The government’s official toll is 77 738 people killed and 55 917 missing, and it also estimates the damage to one of Asia’s least developed economies at $10-billion.

After a government tour of the delta, UN humanitarian chief John Holmes said army-run camps ”seemed well organised” but that most survivors had no shelter.

”There are still a lot of supplies needed to get in in the future in terms of food, but not just for now but for some months to come,” he told reporters after meeting Prime Minister Thein Sein.

Until the last few days, the junta’s attention appeared to have been on a May 10 referendum on a Constitution drafted by the army intended to precede multiparty elections in 2010. The vote was postponed to May 24 in areas worst-hit by the storm.

Diplomats say the government’s attitude appeared to have changed at the weekend, just before an emergency meeting of Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean) in Singapore to set up a regional aid delivery framework that accommodated the generals’ concerns. Burma is one of 10 members and emergency medical teams from the other countries are in Rangoon. – Reuters 2008

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