After deal, aid groups wait for access to Myanmar

By Hla Hla Htay, AFP

YANGON — Cyclone disaster workers said Saturday they still had no word on when they would get the promised full access to Myanmar, which wants the world to donate US$11 billion for reconstruction.

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said he had persuaded military leader Than Shwe to relent on accepting all foreign aid workers, but it was unclear when they would get in — or how much they would be allowed to do once there.

Some aid groups warned that the international community was unlikely to give Myanmar all the money it will request at Sunday’s donor conference in the main city Yangon. The secretive regime has kept all but a handful of foreigners out of the disaster zone in the devastated Irrawaddy Delta since Cyclone Nargis hit three weeks ago, and time is running out for 2.4 million desperate survivors. Ban said he had confidence in the pledges he received from Than Shwe and his inner circle to let foreigners in to help with the slow-moving relief effort from the May 2-3 tragedy in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma.

“That is what I have agreed with Senior General Than Shwe,” he said in neighboring Thailand, where he inaugurated a U.N. aid facility at an airport that will be a major transport point for relief flights into Myanmar. “I’m sure that they’ll keep their commitment,” Ban said. He was to return to Yangon on Sunday for the donor meeting. World frustration has been boiling over at the Myanmar military, which has ruled the country with an iron hand for 46 years and long spurned the overtures of the outside world.

For weeks it insisted it could handle the relief effort alone, even though reporters who have reached the delta say many are still without government assistance and that the situation is grim.

Bodies of some of the estimated 133,000 people left dead or missing are rotting in canals. There is little food, rice paddies are in ruins, and there have been international warnings of a possible famine ahead.

Aid workers said there was no sign yet of changes on the ground regarding access, despite the fact that hunger and disease are stalking survivors.

“There are no clear guidelines so far,” said one foreign relief worker in Yangon, who declined to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue.

Ban said it was urgent to get aid staff into areas affected by the storm.

But he acknowledged the regime’s reluctance to open up to the international community — which has regularly accused the generals of severe human rights abuses and kept the leadership under a decade of stiff economic sanctions.

“For any country, when you want to enter, you should have a very genuine purpose,” Ban said in Yangon on Friday. “This time people are coming for a genuinely humanitarian purpose.”