By Amy Kazmin
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, May 24, 2008
BANGKOK, May 23 -- Burma's powerful leader, Senior Gen. Than Shwe, agreed Friday to allow all foreign aid workers, regardless of nationality, to join relief efforts for survivors of Tropical Cyclone Nargis, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon reported.
The concession, a potential turning point in getting help to victims of the devastating May 2-3 storm, came during a two-hour meeting between Ban and Than Shwe, head of the ruling military junta, in the isolated Burmese capital, Naypyidaw.
"He has agreed to allow all the aid workers, regardless of nationality," Ban told reporters after the meeting. There was no immediate confirmation from Burmese authorities concerning the pledge.
The U.N. chief said the junta expressed willingness to let foreign civilian ships bring in aid.
But according to U.N. officials, the generals stood firm on their refusal to accept delivery from military vessels -- the United States, Britain and France have naval ships in the region. That remains "a very sensitive issue," a senior U.N. official said.
Foreign aid workers have slowly been arriving in Burma, with more on the way -- the Santa Monica, Calif.-based International Medical Corps said Friday it had received entry clearance for an initial four-member emergency response team. But most foreigners have been confined to Rangoon, the country's largest city. The United Nations hopes they now will be permitted to travel to the stricken Irrawaddy Delta, the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
"The general said he saw no reason why that should not happen -- as long as they were genuine humanitarian workers and it was clear what they were going to be doing," the official said. "We've got to turn that into the reality now."
Than Shwe, wearing a military uniform and ribbons, conferred with Ban in an elaborate hall decorated with a painting of pagodas. The two men sat in large carved chairs, a bouquet of flowers between them.
The apparent opening for relief workers came two days before a donor conference in which the junta is expected to request support for what it said would be an $11 billion reconstruction program. Foreign officials have said donors are likely to be reluctant to commit funds until their relief experts are allowed to assess conditions in the disaster zone.
The conference this weekend is being convened in Rangoon by the United Nations and the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
Since Nargis struck three weeks ago, leaving at least 134,000 people dead or missing, U.N. agencies and international charities have struggled to mount a large-scale relief effort for the estimated 2.5 million destitute survivors. Their efforts have relied entirely on Burmese aid workers on the ground.
The generals' apparent loosening on this point "is a significant step forward," said Brian Agland, country director of the international charity CARE. However, he added, the pace of customs clearance for relief supplies should be accelerated.
A U.N. official urged caution, saying, "It would be prudent to wait and see what actually happens on the ground before drawing any firm conclusion about what this commitment represents."
The United Nations has had tense relations with Burma's military rulers, who resent the international organization's repeated efforts to push them into a political settlement with Aung San Suu Kyi, the country's Nobel Peace Prize-winning democracy advocate.
Relations deteriorated further after the junta's forceful suppression of massive anti-government protests in September. The top U.N. official in Burma was expelled in November after asserting publicly that the demonstrations were fueled by frustration over deepening poverty.
Ban made no public mention Friday of Suu Kyi, who is under house arrest, or of wider political issues. U.N. officials said her status was not discussed at the meeting. The opposition leader's latest period of house arrest officially expires Sunday, when the donors' conference is scheduled to convene. Political analysts predict the junta will renew her detention, as it has annually for five years.
Meanwhile, French President Nicolas Sarkozy condemned the generals' refusal to let the French navy ship Le Mistral enter Burmese territorial waters, the Reuters news agency reported. "I profoundly regret this decision," Sarkozy said during a visit to Angola. "Once again, the junta has made the wrong choice."
The United States said it would not keep its Navy ships waiting indefinitely for the generals' permission, Reuters reported.
"We're going to continue to try to encourage them" to accept delivery of the seaborne supplies, Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said. "But at some point -- we're talking, you know, days, maybe weeks, not months -- if the position of the Burmese government doesn't change, then eventually we will have to make a decision to reallocate those naval assets."
Staff writer William Branigin in Washington contributed to this report.