Aid conference kicks off for Myanmar’s cyclone victims (Lead)

May 25th, 2008 - 12:42 pm ICT by admin  

Yangon, May 25 (DPA) An aid conference for the victims of Cyclone Nargis, which slammed into Myanmar three weeks ago leaving 133,000 dead or missing, opened Sunday in Yangon amid widespread perplexity over the government’s stance on the disaster. In addition to representatives from about 45 countries, the conference included United Nations agencies, ministers from the 10 members of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN), the Red Cross movement and at least five non-governmental organizations, UN sources said.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon opened the one-day meeting, which will be co-chaired by UN humanitarian affairs chief John Holmes and ASEAN Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan.

Cyclone Nargis swept across Myanmar’s central coast on May 2-3, leaving some 133,000 people dead or missing, and another 2.4 million desperately in need of food, water, shelter and medicine.

More than three weeks after the catastrophe, international aid has reached only 25 percent of the affected people, many of whom have been stranded without access to supplies in remote regions of the Irrawaddy delta.

Myanmar’s reclusive regime has insisted that the relief phase of the disaster is over, and is seeking to raise $10.7 billion in pledges for reconstruction, rehabilitation and resettlement projects, especially in the Irrawaddy delta that was hardest hot by the storm.

Potential donors at Sunday’s conference were eager to hear the government’s assessment of the catastrophe.

“We still don’t have a clear picture,” said Hanke Veit, regional director for the European Commission Humanitarian Aid Office. “We are not aware of the extent of the government’s assistance to the survivors.”

Myanmar’s ruling junta has come under a harsh international criticism for failing to facilitate a multi-million dollar disaster relief effort for their own people by slowing logistics and preventing foreign workers from entering the country or the delta.

“The purpose of the conference is to identify obstacles to getting the aid to the people that need it, and identify ways to oversome those obstacles to be able to move forwards as quickly as possible,” said Richard Horsey, spokesman for the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

UN chief Ban received an assurance from Myanmar junta head Senior General Than Shwe Friday that visas and access would be allowed for all foreign experts, but donors will want guarantees and further details on Sunday.

“I’m sure that they will keep their commitment,” Ban said Saturday in Bangkok. He flew in to Yangon Sunday morning to open the conference.

But donors want to the know the exact details for procedures allowing access, which they hope will be forthcoming at the conference on Sunday.

The conference will be a diplomatic test for ASEAN, which has set up a task force to ease the implementation of the aid flow with Myanmar’s paranoid generals. Myanmar joined ASEAN in 1997.

“ASEAN is providing the diplomatic architecture,” said Surin at a recent press conference. “What we bring to the table is a degree of confidence, a degree of comfort.”

ASEAN will need to persuade Myanmar’s junta to guarantee free assess for foreign experts to the cyclone-hit areas and assurances that pledges reach the people in need.

“This is make or break for ASEAN,” said Sarah Ireland, regional director for Oxfam.

The “ASEAN formula,” which includes setting up a task force with 22 participants from the ten ASEAN members, including one political appointee and one relief expert from each country and headed by Surin and his own disaster expert, is a unique solution to Myanmar’s unique challenges.

“There has never been this kind of setup before so we will like to understand exactly how it will work,” said Veit.

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