UN puts pressure on Myanmar’s aid-shy junta

May 21st, 2008 - 7:12 pm ICT by admin  

Bangkok, May 21 (DPA) United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said Wednesday that he wants to “reinforce cooperation” with Myanmar’s military junta in scaling up disaster relief during his visit this week to the cyclone-devastated country. “I hope we will be able to scale up the operation, specifically to expedite all arrangements in the aid effort,” said Ban, who noted that 19 days after Cyclone Nargis struck Myanmar, 25 percent of the affected people had received assistance.

Ban, who arrived Wednesday in Bangkok, was scheduled to fly on to Myanmar Thursday, when he planned to travel to the Irrawaddy Delta, the region hardest hit by Cyclone Nargis, which swept over Myanmar’s central coast on May 2-3, leaving at least 133,000 dead and missing and an estimated 2.5 million in need of food, water, shelter and medicine.

“It is the worst natural disaster in the history of their country,” Ban said, adding, “This is a crucial time.”

The UN chief was to meet with Myanmar’s military supremo, Senior General Than Shwe, on Friday in Naypyitaw, the country’s capital, situated about 350 km north of cyclone-smashed Yangon, the former capital, UN humanitarian affairs chief John Holmes confirmed earlier Wednesday.

“I hope that he [Ban] will be able to continue the discussions that I was having, in particularly about greater cooperation between Myanmar authorities and the international community,” said Holmes, who met with Prime Minister Thein Sein Tuesday in Yangon.

“That should be an important meeting,” said Holmes, talking to journalists in Bangkok after he met Thai Foreign Minister Noppodon Pattama.

Over the past two weeks, Thailand has become a major logistical and information hub for an international effort to funnel disaster relief into neighbouring Myanmar.

Ban thanked Thai Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej for offering Bangkok’s old international airport, Don Mueang, as a logistical hub for the UN relief effort in Myanmar although he noted that he still wanted to set up a forward base inside Myanmar.

More than two weeks after the disaster, the international community is growing increasingly irate with the ruling regime’s reluctance to open up its devastated country to a full-scale emergency relief programme, complete with a logistical pipeline runby foreign aid experts.

The junta has refused to waive visa requirements for aid workers and has not permitted those allowed in to work in the Irrawaddy Delta, where most of the cyclone victims reside, many of them in remote areas inaccessible except by boat and helicopter.

In a minor breakthrough, Myanmar authorities on Tuesday permitted the Word Food Programme (WFP) to bring in 10 UN helicopters to use in emergency food distribution, but hiccups remained even here.

“We received approval on Tuesday, but we still have not been able to work out the specific agreement with the Myanmar authorities for bringing in ground operation crews for the helicopters and where the helicopters will be used,” said Paul Risley, a spokesman for the UN agency.

The first UN helicopter, an M18P based in Malaysia, would be sent to Yangon Thursday, but the remaining nine are likely to face several days of delays as they are flown in from various locations, reassembled in Bangkok and delivered to Yangon - and only after details on where and how the aircraft may be used are hashed out with Myanmar authorities.

“Obviously, from our point of view, the need for the helicopters is urgent,” Risley said.

The WFP estimated that it has reached one-third of the 750,000 cyclone victims deemed desperately in need of food.

After meeting Than Shwe Friday, Ban plans to return to Bangkok for talks with donor nations and Samak Saturday before presiding over a UN-ASEAN conference Sunday designed to get pledges of more assistance for the Myanmar relief effort and to find ways to accelerate it.

The Asean or the Association of South-East Asian Nations, of which Myanmar is a member - has proposed itself as an intermediary between the international aid community and Myanmar’s generals.

“We don’t want to force Myanmar because we are Myanmar’s friend, but we want them to see the necessity of having more foreign aid workers in their country because the destruction there has been huge,” Noppodon said after meeting Holmes.

Holmes said it was still unclear how many donor countries intended to attend the meeting in Yangon.

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