Thai premier flies to Myanmar on persuasion mission

May 14th, 2008 - 12:53 pm ICT by admin  

Bangkok, May 14 (DPA) Thai Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej flew to cyclone-devastated Myanmar Wednesday on a mission to persuade the ruling junta to grant visas to relief experts trying to enter the country, officials confirmed. The prime minister left Don Muaeng Military Airport aboard an Air Force plane loaded with 100 satellite phone sets and related equipment as well as medicine to hand over to Myanmar’s generals in Naypyitaw, the country’s new capital.

The regime asked for the satellite phones to assist their disaster relief efforts in the Irrawaddy delta area that was hard-hit by Cyclone Nargis May 2 to 3, according to Thai sources.

According to the government’s latest estimate the cyclone killed 34,273 people and left 27,838 missing, although UN estimate the death toll at closer to 100,000.

Nearly two weeks after the calamity, Myanmar’s military leaders are still refusing to grant visas to scores of key foreign aid experts deemed crucial to an international aid effort, which is lagging tragically in getting deliveries of vital supplies of food, water, shelter and medicine to an estimated 1.9 million people hard-hit by the storm.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon reportedly phoned Samak Monday to ask for his assistance in persuading Myanmar’s junta to allow more international aid workers and aid into Myanmar to speed up the multi-million-dollar disaster relief operation.

Thailand, which is Myanmar’s eastern neighbour, is a major trading partner with the country and has long shared close ties with its xenophobic leaders through a foreign policy of “engagement” with the regime.

The UN and the US have been trying to use Thailand as a diplomatic bridge to Myanmar’s junta, a pariah state among most western democracies because of its atrocious human rights record and refusal to introduce democratic reforms.

“I think the engagement that has been our policy is something that opens channels up for us to get in,” said Thai Foreign ministry spokesman Tharit Charungvat.

“Every party at the moment is quite comfortable with Thailand,” he added.

The Myanmar regime has reason to be particularly comfortable with Samak, a veteran right-wing Thai politician who became prime minister Jan 28.

Samak has shared warm relations with Myanmar’s military rulers since coming to power. After a state visit in March, Samak described the ruling generals as “good Buddhists”, months after they launched a crackdown on peaceful protests led by Buddhist monks that left at least 31 people dead and the world appalled.

The US approached Samak last week for his assistance in persuading Myanmar’s generals to allow it to fly in emergency aid on Thai military aircraft and bring in aid experts.

Myanmar’s authorities turned down the request, but later allowed the US to fly in the aid on their own aircraft from U Tapao Airbase, in Sattahip, Thailand.

At least two air shipments of US goods have been delivered to Yangon this week from U Tapao.

The international aid community has expressed growing frustration with Myanmar’s military for throwing up unnecessary obstacles to a massive disaster relief programme for victims of Cyclone Nargis.

Almost two weeks after the calamity, hundreds of thousands are still without access to food, water and medicine, threatening a “health catastrophe” that could increase the death toll 15-fold, aid agencies have warned.

Thailand was the first country to fly in emergency aid into Yangon May 8.

Last year Thailand imported more than $2 billion worth of natural gas from Myanmar, providing much-needed foreign exchange to the ruling regime.

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