Asia-Pacific News

Hopes for Myanmar Cyclone Aid Rise as ASEAN Meets


Hopes turned to a meeting of Southeast Asian foreign ministers on Monday for a breakthrough in speeding up aid flows to the millions of desperate cyclone survivors in Myanmar.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon will travel to Myanmar this week to apply pressure on the country's military rulers to open more channels for help. His spokeswoman, Michele Montas, said she also expected an international conference in Bangkok on May 24 to marshal funds for the relief effort.

Myanmar soldiers carry sacks of rice, part of aid supplied by the Thai government, at an airport in Yangon, Myanmar Tuesday, May 6, 2008. Myanmar's Irrawaddy delta, where nearly 22,000 people perished, remained largely cut off from the rest of the world Tuesday, four days after a cyclone unleashed winds, floods and high tidal waves on the densely populated region. (AP Photo)

Monday's meeting of Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) foreign ministers in Singapore came after upbeat comments from Britain's Asia minister, Mark Malloch-Brown, about the prospects for getting more aid into the former Burma.

He told Reuters at the weekend that a turning point was near for opening the spigots wider for help to up to 2.5 million desperate survivors of the cyclone that left at least 134,000 people dead or missing.

"But, like all turning points in Burma, the corner will have a few 'S' bends in it," Malloch-Brown said in Yangon, where he saw a series of top officials.

Aid has been trickling into the country but the junta, suspicious of the outside world, has been reluctant to admit major foreign relief operations and the workers to run them.

The World Food Programme (WFP) says it has managed to get rice and beans to 212,000 of the 750,000 people it thinks are most in need.

Malloch-Brown, who came to Yangon after visiting some ASEAN members, said the Asian/U.N.-led process had already begun.

Asian nations considered friendly by Myanmar were sending in aid teams and an ASEAN assessment team was on the ground, he said. That team is due to report to the meeting in Singapore.

Other countries would make their contributions through this channel, Malloch-Brown said.
Rare Appearance

Than Shwe, the reclusive leader of junta, made a public appearance on Sunday for the first time since the disaster.

U.N. chief Ban should arrive in Myanmar on Wednesday evening and travel to the Irrawaddy delta, the area hit hardest by Cyclone Nargis on May 2, his spokeswoman said.

He hopes to meet senior members of Myanmar's government, she said, but she could not immediately say whether Than Shwe would be one of them. The general has refused to talk to Ban by telephone since the cyclone.

State television showed Than Shwe meeting in Yangon on Monday with ministers involved in the rescue effort and touring some cyclone-hit areas in the immediate vicinity.

The junta, which has ruled Myanmar in various incarnations for 46 years, moved the capital to Naypyidaw, 400 km (250 miles) north from Yangon, the former Rangoon, in 2005. Than Shwe has rarely been seen in public since.

The United Nations' chief humanitarian officer, John Holmes, arrived in Yangon on Sunday night and was expected to deliver a message from Ban to the generals.

Ban previously proposed a "high-level pledging conference" to deal with the crisis, as well as having a joint coordinator from the United Nations and Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to oversee aid delivery.

Analysts speculated Than Shwe's appearance in Yangon meant he was likely to meet Holmes or possibly Ban.

Thousands of children could die within weeks if food does not get to them soon, the aid organization Save the Children said on Sunday. Malloch-Brown said the United Nations estimated that help had reached less than 25 percent of those in need.
Record Damage   

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.

If Myanmar's junta does not open its doors to a large-scale aid operation like the one after the Asian tsunami in December 2004, disaster experts say the death toll from Nargis could climb dramatically.

At least 232,000 people were killed when the tsunami struck nations bordering the Indian Ocean.

Despite his optimism about a possible aid breakthrough, Britain's Malloch-Brown said that because of the junta's suspicions, operations were still unlikely to involve numbers of foreign aid workers comparable to other recent disasters in Asia.