U.N. chief announces accord with Myanmar on cyclone aid

From a Times Staff Writer

Declaring a breakthrough for stalled cyclone relief efforts, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Myanmar’s leader had agreed Friday to ease restrictions on foreign aid workers.

Senior Gen. Than Shwe agreed to “allow all aid workers regardless of nationalities” so they could “reach all these areas where needy people are still awaiting our help,” Ban said. Than Shwe also said the Yangon airport would be a hub for relief deliveries, Ban said.

The United Nations chief said Than Shwe took “quite a flexible position on this matter” during their meeting in front of several generals in the military government’s remote new capital, Naypyidaw.

However, the military regime released no statement giving its version of the meeting, leaving it unclear whether it would truly allow foreign aid workers to work freely in the vast southern areas devastated by the May 2-3 storm.


The regime’s official views are usually expressed through statements read on nightly newscasts on state-run television, but Friday night’s newscast did not provide details of any agreements reached between Than Shwe and Ban.

News of the apparent breakthrough was greeted with skepticism in Yangon, the country’s commercial center. Than Shwe has a reputation for saying just enough to relieve foreign pressure on his government and then failing to do what visiting envoys think he promised.

In his brief comments to reporters Friday, Ban did not say whether the regime would allow U.S., British and French naval vessels that have been waiting offshore for days to deliver their tons of relief cargo.

The government said it would allow the aid to be delivered “via civilian ships and small boats,” Ban said. His remark appeared to leave open the possibility that the naval ships’ cargo might be acceptable if it was transferred to civilian vessels.


The regime has denied that it is blocking aid, despite complaints from numerous international agencies that they are not being allowed to deliver anywhere near the amount of food, medicine, medical care and other help that’s required.

More than two weeks ago, the regime appointed a government minister to handle visa applications for foreign relief workers. But most of those who have been allowed into the country are restricted to Yangon, formerly called Rangoon. Others waiting for approval complain that the visa process is too slow.

Some foreign workers, including medical teams from neighboring Asian countries, are already working in the Irrawaddy River delta, the area hit hardest by Tropical Cyclone Nargis. But the U.N. and other agencies say more foreign experts are needed, along with stepped-up deliveries of supplies, to avert a second wave of deaths from disease and hunger.

Before his two-day visit to Myanmar, also known as Burma, Ban said the U.N. had been able to reach only about 25% of some 2.4 million storm survivors in desperate need.


The government says the cyclone killed at least 78,000 people, with 56,000 missing.

The prime minister, Lt. Gen. Thein Sein, told U.N. and other foreign officials here Thursday that the government had everything under control and had moved from a relief effort to reconstruction.

“In the earlier days, there were rumors that we were denying international assistance and that we were selectively accepting outside relief aid,” he said, according to a transcript published Friday in the state-run newspaper the New Light of Myanmar.

“On the contrary,” he said, “we have accepted with appreciation all relief goods and financial assistance offered by any country. However, international humanitarian assistance should not be politicized.”


People displaced by the storm, and local volunteers who have supported them in Buddhist monasteries and other private relief camps, say the government ordered thousands of survivors to return to destroyed villages -- or made life so difficult that they left on their own.

The regime has set up 419 relief camps, U Soe Tha, minister for national planning and economic development, told foreign officials here Thursday.

The massive job of rebuilding villages, roads, communication links and other damaged infrastructure, as well as getting farmers and fishermen back to work, “will need time and more technical and material assistance from the international community,” said Thein Sein, the prime minister.

Ban, who flew to Bangkok, Thailand, on Friday, plans to return to Yangon on Sunday to attend an international donors conference. The government has estimated that it needs more than $10 billion to repair the destruction.