UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon headed for Myanmar yesterday, looking to convince the generals who have snubbed his phone calls to accept a full-scale relief operation for Cyclone Nargis.
Before leaving New York, Ban said the junta had agreed to let nine UN helicopters work in remote regions hit hard by the storm, which has left at least 133,000 people dead or missing and 2 million more in dire need.
But there has been an international uproar over the limits on the aid operation imposed by the junta.
The junta’s English-language mouthpiece, the New Light of Myanmar paper, said yesterday that the regime would not take aid coming from US military ships and helicopters because of unspecified “strings attached.”
The US has repeatedly said that its aid is unconditional, and Ban will try to get the generals to open up to more help to prevent any more lives being lost.
“This is a critical moment for Myanmar. We have a functioning relief program in place but so far we have been able to reach only about 25 percent of Myanmar’s people in need,” Ban said before departing.
He was to spend the night in Thailand before heading to Myanmar today.
Aid groups have estimated that the true death toll could be substantially higher than the regime has indicated, while hunger and disease are stalking the survivors.
Many people are without sufficient food and water nearly three weeks after the cyclone hit, and international organizations have repeatedly said the regime does not have the capacity to supervise the relief work alone.
Ban said nine helicopters from the UN’s World Food Programme would be allowed to work in remote regions of the country’s disaster zone, where almost all foreign aid personnel have been banned.
Ban will try to hold talks with the generals today and tomorrow, and then return on Sunday for an international conference of donors in Yangon hosted by the UN and ASEAN.
The New Light of Myanmar dismissed reports that survivors were not getting adequate aid.
“Our country is going through a variety of storm-like plots and intrigues that are much severer than Nargis, and they are endless,” it said.
Meanwhile, the US on Tuesday questioned the relevance of Sunday’s conference, saying it was more important for the junta to provide swift increased access to disaster-hit areas.
“Without an adequate and independent assessment of the situation and current needs, as well as a commitment by the regime to provide the necessary access, a pledging conference is unlikely to produce the results we seek,” US envoy to ASEAN Scot Marciel told a congressional hearing in Washington.
He said the US, which had provided more than US$16 million in aid through non-governmental groups and the UN, was reviewing participation at Sunday’s conference.
Washington, he said, still believed that the key to saving more lives was to increase access urgently to the disaster areas for international relief teams who could provide the expertise and logistical resources that the military regime lacked.
The junta insists it is capable of managing the logistics of the aid distribution operation but “it clearly is not,” Marciel said.
“The situation is increasingly desperate and the regime’s failure to provide greater access for the international community to the affected area is putting hundreds of thousands of lives at risk,” he said.