/ 23 May 2008

Impassive Burma junta chief greets UN’s Ban

With an impassive handshake, BUrma junta supremo Than Shwe greeted Ban Ki-moon in his remote new capital on Friday at the apex of a high-stakes aid mission by the United Nations chief for the victims of Cyclone Nargis.

The 75-year-old Senior General’s stony-faced silence gave no clues as to whether he would overcome his deep suspicions of the outside world and its offers of help to the 2,4-million people left destitute by the cyclone in the Irrawaddy Delta.

He was in dark green trousers and a shirt covered with military decorations — as he was when he emerged this week from Naypyidaw, 390km north of Rangoon, to inspect the destruction and army relief effort and meet survivors.

Ban saw the extent of the disaster for himself on Thursday, flying in a helicopter over flooded rice fields and destroyed homes in the delta, the former ”rice bowl of Asia” that bore the brunt of the May 2 storm and its 3,5 metre sea surge.

The official toll is nearly 134 000 people dead or missing, making Nargis one of the worst cyclones to hit Asia. Three weeks on, aid is still only trickling in due to the junta’s restrictions on foreign relief operations.

Unless the generals open their doors, thousands more people could die of hunger and disease, disaster experts say.

”I am so sorry, but don’t lose your hope,” Ban told one woman as he peered into a blue tent at the Kyondah relief camp 75km south of Rangoon.

”The United Nations is here to help you. The whole world is trying to help Myanmar [Burma].”

Government officials told him the situation was under control, reiterating the line in army-controlled media that the immediate emergency relief phase of the disaster was over and it was now time to look to reconstruction.

”All efforts are being made towards the relief of the victims and for the country to soon return to normal,” Energy Minister Brigadier General Lun Thi told Ban at the camp, the same one diplomats were shown at the weekend.

US allowed in, just

The junta has accepted relief flights into Rangoon from many countries, including the United States, its fiercest critic, but has largely kept Western disaster experts out of the delta.

However, it has allowed a senior US aid official on a three-day government tour of the area. Washington said the permission was an ”opening, but it is not sufficient”.

Medical teams from India, China, Thailand, Laos and Bangladesh are working in the delta along with thousands of local medics and other volunteers, state media said.

Burma television also broadcast footage of Ban’s official tour, showing shaking hands with and talking to survivors.

Prime Minister Thein Sein was quoted as saying ”politics should not be intertwined with humanitarian needs” and the government was not impeding the flow of aid.

British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said there were no strings attached to offers of assistance.

”This is a humanitarian response being made to a natural disaster that is being turned into a man-made catastrophe. We are trying to send aid there for purely humanitarian purposes. There is no ulterior motive,” Miliband said on a trip with US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in California.

The UN and the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), of which Burma is a part, are preparing for a donor-pledging conference in Rangoon on Sunday.

However, Asean Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan said countries would be reluctant to commit money until they are allowed in to assess the damage for themselves.

”The shared concern is we don’t know the extent of the damage. We don’t know the number of the dead, the number of the missing or the number of the displaced,” said Surin, who was told by officials that Burma needed $11-billion.

Ban’s visit was the talk of Rangoon for people desperate for political change after 46 years of unbroken military rule — especially given the UN’s abortive attempts to mediate after September’s bloody crackdown on protests led by Buddhist monks.

But deep down people accepted his visit would not stray from its humanitarian mission.

”I don’t think we can expect much out of his visit because the UN has not been able to influence the regime at all concerning our situation,” lawyer Nyunt Aung said.

Sunday’s conference coincides with the expiry of the latest year-long detention order imposed on opposition leader and Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, now under continuous house arrest for five years. Nobody expects her to be released. – Reuters 2008