Myanmar Mourns Cyclone Dead, Aid Pressure Grows
Army-ruled Myanmar started three days of mourning on Tuesday for the 134,000 dead and missing from Cyclone Nargis as diplomats pressed the reclusive generals to speed up aid to 2.4 million survivors.
Flags would fly at half mast until Thursday, state television said a day after the first appearance in the disaster zone by junta supremo Than Shwe, who left Yangon for a new capital 250 miles (390 km) to the north in 2005.
The bespectacled 75-year-old Senior General was shown touring storm-hit parts of Yangon on Sunday and the Irrawaddy Delta on Monday, fueling speculation that after two weeks, the leadership has woken up to the scale of the disaster, one of Asia's most devastating cyclones.
"It is not insignificant that he has been forced out of his lair," one Yangon-based diplomat said. "There are obviously some in the military who see how enormous this is, and how enormously wrong it could go without further support."
Aid experts say massive foreign assistance, ideally on the scale of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami aid effort, is needed to prevent the death toll from hunger and disease soaring.
The onset of the monsoon season in the Irrawaddy Delta is making life even more miserable for those clinging to survival after Nargis' winds and sea surge ravaged the area.
Daily downpours are making it hard to salvage what little stores of rice escaped the storm's initial wrath.
"Our rice could recover if the sun ever got the chance to shine," one weather-beaten farmer said in a delta village. "But it will never be good quality again."
Diplomatic Wheels Turning
The junta has accepted foreign aid flights, including some from the U.S. military, into Yangon and allowed U.N. agencies such as the World Food Programme to distribute supplies.
However, it has been loathe to let foreign aid teams into the delta for fear the presence of outsiders might threaten the military's 46-year grip on power.
Checkpoints have been set up on roads leading into the delta. Soldiers and police are searching vehicles, taking down licence plates, and asking "Are you all Burmese? Are there any foreigners?"
However, the diplomatic wheels are starting to turn, raising hopes that experts adept at establishing networks to distribute aid may finally be able to help.
At an emergency disaster response meeting in Singapore on Monday, the Association of South East Asian Nations of which Myanmar is a member, said it would coordinate the aid effort and set up a "mechanism" for more supplies.
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is also set to fly in on Wednesday to try to convince the generals it is in their interests to open up and put aside pride and paranoia.
"His objective is to reinforce the ongoing aid operation, see how the international relief and rehabilitation effort can be scaled up and work with Myanmar authorities to significantly increase the amount of aid," his spokeswoman Michele Montas said.
Details of ASEAN's plan and its relief "task force" are still sketchy, although the 10-nation group and the United Nations announced in a joint statement that they would convene a donor conference in Yangon on May 25.
Myanmar had also agreed to accept nearly 300 medical personnel from its neighbors to supplement the few outside teams of doctors already admitted, ASEAN said.
"We have to look at specific needs. There will not be uncontrolled access," Singapore Foreign Minister George Yeo said.
The U.N.'s chief humanitarian officer, John Holmes, is expected to meet Prime Minister Thein Sein on Tuesday to deliver a message from Ban to the generals. Holmes visited the devastated delta towns of Labutta and Bogalay on Monday.
While aid has been trickling into the delta, the World Food Programme says it has managed to get rice, beans and biscuits to just 250,000 of the 750,000 people it thinks are most in need.
Britain's Asia minister Mark Malloch-Brown said after returning from Myanmar that the generals and aid groups had widely differing views as to immediate priorities.
"Getting a needs assessment done in time for the donors' meeting is critical to get everyone on the same page," he told reporters in London.
In one town in the upper delta, a steady stream of refugees arrived after travelling for days from Pyinsalu, one of the worst-hit districts.
"I didn't have any kids, but I lost all my relatives. It's only my wife and me now," said one man, his clothes soaked by rain and wearing no shoes.
In the last 50 years, only two Asian cyclones have exceeded the human toll of Nargis -- a 1970 storm that killed 500,000 people in neighboring Bangladesh and another that killed 143,000 people in 1991, also in Bangladesh.