U.N. Chief Tours Burma Ruins

By Amy Kazmin
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, May 23, 2008

BANGKOK, May 22 -- After flying to Burma for an emergency visit, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon pressed the country's xenophobic military rulers Thursday to permit a large-scale international disaster-relief operation for the estimated 2.5 million survivors of Tropical Cyclone Nargis. Officials responded that the emergency was over and that the main need now is long-term reconstruction aid.

In a meeting with Gen. Thein Sein, the Burmese prime minister, Ban expressed frustration over "the inability of the aid workers to bring assistance at the right time to the affected areas," according to the U.N. account of the talks. The world body says that most victims have received no help almost three weeks after the cyclone struck.

Later, Ban was flown by helicopter from Rangoon, the country's largest city, to the Irrawaddy Delta, the country's hardest-hit region. His aircraft passed over mile after mile of flooded rice paddies, stranded boats and ruined, abandoned houses. In one village, people waded along an inundated street.

He arrived at a refugee camp that has been made a showpiece by the government of Burma, also known as Myanmar. Over the weekend, foreign diplomats were taken to the same camp, Kyondah, about 40 miles south of Rangoon, where cyclone victims are living in neatly aligned blue tents.

"I am so sorry, but don't lose your hope," Ban told a camp resident, according to the U.N. "The United Nations is here to help you. The whole world is trying to help Myanmar."

For days, Ban has expressed dismay that the government is rejecting so much of the help being offered. Though it is admitting aid flights and a few foreign experts, it has insisted on handling the distribution largely by itself. It has agreed to let the United Nations bring in civilian helicopters to fly aid to afflicted areas. But many foreign aid workers in neighboring Thailand still have no visas, and U.S. Navy vessels with supplies and helicopters are languishing off the Burmese coast.

Ban came to Burma after publicly complaining that he had been unable to get the country's leader, Senior Gen. Than Shwe, on the telephone. Ban is scheduled to meet Than Shwe on Friday in Naypyidaw, the new capital that the military government has built in a remote part of central Burma.

After flying in from Thailand, Ban was taken to Rangoon's majestic Shwedagon Pagoda, Burma's spiritual heart, which he walked through barefoot, following Buddhist custom. "The United Nations and the whole international community stand ready to help you overcome this tragedy," Ban said during his visit there. "At the same time, I hope that your people and government can coordinate the flow of aid so the aid work can be done in a more systematic and organized way."

Later, sitting in an ornate carved chair, he spoke with Thein Sein, the premier. Ban told him that responding to the cyclone -- which Burma has reported left about 133,000 people dead or missing -- was beyond the capacity of the country and that international help was required.

Thein Sein reportedly responded that the government believes it is time to focus on reconstruction.

The military rulers initially estimated the cost of rebuilding in the Irrawaddy Delta at $11 billion, money that they apparently hope to start raising at an international conference in Rangoon on Sunday.

Yet fundraising even for immediate humanitarian relief has been sluggish, with many governments wary of making large donations in view of government restrictions and other bottlenecks that make it impossible for aid agencies to reach victims or monitor distribution by the military.

"Clearly people have not been fully able to commit to giving the kinds of resources that we would normally hope to see flowing at this stage," said Amanda Pitt of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. "It seems that it has been fairly slow."

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the regional bloc that is coordinating the global aid effort, has urged Burmese authorities to permit a detailed assessment of needs, with support from technical experts, before Sunday's meeting.

"The outpouring of goodwill very much depends on the facts and realities that are verifiable," said Surin Pitsuwan, ASEAN's secretary general, speaking to journalists in Bangkok. "We have to have some form of agreement so this conference will be able to garner assistance based on figures accepted, scrutinized and validated by competent, objective, neutral agencies."

After protracted negotiations, Burma gave the go-ahead this week to the U.N. World Food Program to import nine civilian helicopters to ferry supplies. The first is to reach Burma on Friday; others will not arrive for a week or so.

The state-controlled New Light of Myanmar newspaper reaffirmed that the country would not accept aid, logistical support or helicopters from U.S. naval vessels. It said the offer came "with strings attached" that are "not acceptable to the people of Myanmar."

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