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UN chief tells Myanmar to focus on saving lives PDF Print E-mail
Tuesday, 27 May 2008

AFP, YANGON - UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said Sunday the world must focus on saving the lives of desperate cyclone survivors in Myanmar, which is pushing for billions of dollars to start rebuilding efforts.

Making a high-profile bid to press the reluctant military regime to allow a full-scale disaster relief operation, Ban opened a donor pledging conference here by rejecting Myanmar's insistence that relief work is already over.

Instead, he said, there were countless numbers of survivors still without enough food, water and shelter -- and that their plight should be the priority in the wake of Cyclone Nargis, which left 133,000 people dead or missing.

"I ask all of us to keep our eye firmly on the immediate objective -- saving lives," Ban told the gathering of nations and aid groups, where the regime was set to ask for 10.7 billion dollars in reconstruction aid.

"I expect the relief effort will run for several months, probably six months at least, as we feed and care for those who have lost everything," he told the meeting, with Myanmar's Prime Minister Thein Sein in attendance.

"Destroyed infrastructure must be rebuilt," Ban said. "That cannot be our chief concern today."

Suspicious of the outside world, Myanmar's ruling generals have enraged the international community by refusing to let in most foreign aid workers more than three weeks after the tragedy struck.

Ban said Friday he had persuaded Senior General Than Shwe, the country's leader, to give foreign aid workers unlimited access to Myanmar, including the hard-hit Irrawaddy Delta which has been all but sealed off by the junta.

"Prompt and full implementation will be key," the UN chief said in his conference address. "I shall be closely, continuously and personally engaged."

There has been little sign of change on the ground, however, and Than Shwe -- who rules the country with an iron hand from a remote bunker capital -- did not attend Sunday's meeting.

Thein Sein, making the regime's first public comment on the issue, appeared to link the admission of aid workers to the country with rebuilding work.

"For those groups who are interested in rehabilitation and reconstruction, my government is ready to accept them, in accordance with our priorities and the extent of work that needs to be done," Thein Sein said.

"We will consider allowing them if they wish to engage in rehabilitation and reconstruction work."

Once known as Burma and now one of the most isolated countries on the planet, Myanmar has often reneged on its commitments -- but nations at the conference warned they would push the junta to get aid workers in.

"I will make clear in unequivocal terms the responsibility of the Burmese regime to allow the unfettered access that the international community wants to see," said Douglas Alexander, Britain's top international development official.

The storm hit May 2-3, washing away entire villages and ruining crucial rice fields that are essential to feed the impoverished nation. The European Union's top aid official has already warned there could be a famine ahead.

Despite the scope of the devastation and accounts from survivors that many villages still have not got government help, the regime gave the conference a particularly precise picture of the situation on the ground.

Planning Minister Soe Tha showed delegates a chart that said 665,271 ducks, 56,163 cows and 1,614,502 chickens had been lost in the storm -- along with 35,051 acres of fish ponds and 22,200 metric tonnes of beef.

The United Nations and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the co-hosts of the donor conference, reportedly have approval to supervise an expanded aid operation and were to present the details at the meeting.

The half-day conference is also being attended by dozens of governments and international relief organisations, including Myanmar's most powerful ally China, represented by Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi.

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