The leader of Myanmar’s increasingly isolated ruling junta made his first public visit to a relief camp on Sunday as state media lashed out at swelling international criticism that it was closing the door on aid to millions in desperate need following Cyclone Nargis.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, rebuffed in attempts to discuss the situation over the telephone with Myanmar’s military leaders, announced he would go to the disaster zone this week to try to ramp up aid efforts.
The government has announced a three-day mourning period for victims that is to start today.
State television announced that the national flag will be flown at half-mast during the mourning period.
A senior British official hinted a major breakthrough may also be in the works to allow foreign military ships to join the relief effort, but warnings grew of a potential second wave of death among children hard-hit by the lack of fresh water and proper shelter.
State television reported that junta leader Senior General Than Shwe came down from the capital, Naypyitaw, in the northern jungles to visit relief camps in the Hlaing Thar Yar and Dagon suburbs of Yangon. Reports showed him inspecting supplies and comforting victims in relatively clean and neat rows of blue tents.
Some survivors clasped their hands and bowed in gratitude as he and a column of military leaders walked past. Than Shwe was shown patting babies on their heads.
The trip was the first by Than Shwe since the May 2 to May 3 storm killed at least 78,000 and left another 56,000 missing.
In the devastated Irrawaddy Delta, farther south, the situation remained grim.
In the city of Laputta, hundreds of children covered their heads from the rain with empty aluminum plates as they lined the street in front of a private donation center. They were given rice, a spoonful of curry and a potato.
“Children only. Please. Children only,” shouted a man who stood in the middle of the line, trying to push back the crowd of adults.
He explained they were trying to feed children and the elderly first because food supplies were limited and adults could still fend for themselves.
In one of the few positive notes of the day, British Foreign Office Minister Lord Malloch-Brown told the BBC that he believes the Myanmar rulers may soon relent on allowing foreign military ships to join in the relief effort, especially if Asian go-betweens are involved.
“I think you’re going to see quite dramatic steps by the Burmese to open up,” he said.
One breakthrough appeared to be on the horizon in the junta’s dealings with the UN.
Ban was to arrive in Myanmar tomorrow, his spokeswoman Michele Montas said.
The announcement came as UN undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs John Holmes arrived in Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city, late on Sunday to meet with junta leaders.
Than Shwe had refused to take telephone calls from Ban and had not responded to two letters from him, Montas said in New York.
Holmes was to deliver a third letter.
Myanmar’s leaders have reacted with defensive anger at criticism of their handling of the crisis and stepped up their rhetoric on Sunday.
The state-run New Light of Myanmar said in an editorial on Sunday that the government, “mobilizing the cooperation of the people, social organizations and departments,” has rushed to carry out relief and rehabilitation tasks.