After deal, aid groups wait for access to Myanmar
Monday, 26 May 2008

A Myanmarese boy displaced by Cyclone Nargis stands in his tent in the Kyondah villageAFP, 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 11 billion dollars for reconstruction.

UN 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 neighbouring Thailand, where he inaugurated a UN 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."

The junta has rejected aid from French and US naval ships loaded with relief supplies which are in nearby waters. The handful of foreign aid staff in the country are largely banned from the delta.

The regime has agreed to let the United Nations and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), of which Myanmar is a member, oversee the relief effort.

The details of that arrangement will be presented at Sunday's donor conference -- where Myanmar is expected to ask for 10.7 billion dollars in assistance.

ASEAN Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan said the conference would also look at the agreement on getting in foreign aid workers.

"We will have to see how we can translate that into reality," he told AFP.

Penny Lawrence, international director of Oxfam, said the world was unlikely to give as much money as Myanmar requested as long as the regime insisted that there were no people short of food, water and other essentials.

"I don't know how much the donors are willing to pledge, but I wouldn't imagine it's going to be in that kind of region," she said.

Residents in the disaster zones Saturday were meanwhile summoned to the polls to vote on a new constitution which would bar the detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi from ever holding office.

The junta has already announced that it won the vote in the first round, held just one week after the cyclone hit.

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