Aid groups ready to test Myanmar on access
Tuesday, 27 May 2008

Supplies are carried after foreign aid workers arrive in KungyangonAgency

International aid groups said Monday they were planning to test Myanmar's commitment to open up to foreign aid workers, after the junta pledged to speed up relief for desperate cyclone survivors.

Despite international fears over the fate of the victims, the junta pushed ahead with its political agenda, declaring an overwhelming victory for a constitution that gives the military sweeping powers.

But politics was kept carefully off the agenda at the weekend donor conference, where nations pledged at least 30 million dollars in aid on top of 100 million dollars already promised, according to an initial UN tally.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon focused on pushing the country's secretive military rulers to make good on their promise to allow in foreign aid workers more than three weeks after the tragedy -- a delay that has outraged the international community.

While offering help, most donors bluntly told the regime to focus on saving lives and honour the pledge to let foreign experts into the disaster zone.

The junta has blocked access to the country and all but sealed off the hard-hit Irrawaddy Delta in the wake of Cyclone Nargis, even though 2.4 million people are desperately short of food, water and shelter.

"My sincere hope is that they will honour their commitment," Ban said in neighbouring Thailand, after wrapping up the first visit to Myanmar by a UN chief in almost 45 years.

"That we have to see," said Ban, who refused to say how or whether junta leader Than Shwe had explained the decision to limit the relief effort after the cyclone hit May 2-3, leaving 133,000 people dead or missing.

On Monday, reporters who slipped past security checkpoints to enter the delta said immigration officers were still questioning foreigners on main roads into the region.

Fears of delays in issuing visas also arose after a fire destroyed an entire floor of one building at the Myanmar embassy in Bangkok early Monday.

Thai police said the visa section was not affected, and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies said it had been told the section would reopen quickly.

France announced overnight it had given up trying to deliver a shipload of aid on a naval vessel in nearby waters. Deeply suspicious of the outside world, Myanmar has refused any aid from US, British and French naval ships.

International relief groups that are already allowed to conduct limited operations inside Myanmar said they would put the junta's pledge to the test as soon as possible.

Veronique Terrasse, a spokeswoman in Bangkok for Doctors Without Borders, said it could take days to see if access to the delta improves.

"Hopefully we'll get some answers today and in the coming days," she said. "We're just waiting and hoping that things will change."

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 Sunday's conference warned they would push the junta to let aid workers in.

"We hope to be getting the full cooperation of the government," said Kathleen Cravero of the UN Development Programme. "We still absolutely need to be providing humanitarian relief.

The storm washed away entire villages and ruined rice fields that are essential to feed the impoverished nation . The European Union's top aid official has warned there could be a famine ahead.

But neither the tragedy nor the high-profile diplomacy stopped Myanmar from declaring that almost all the nation's voters had cast ballots in a referendum, with 92.48 percent approving the new constitution.

The junta says the constitution will pave the way for democratic elections in two years, but the charter would bar democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi from running and reserve one quarter of seats in parliament for the military.

Aung San Suu Kyi led her National League for Democracy party to a landslide victory in the last national elections, held in 1990. The military did not recognise the result, and has kept her under house arrest for most of the time since.

The house arrest order, believed to expire at midnight Monday, was expected to be extended.

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