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Burma Warns of Food Shortage

Asian Group Gets Green Light to Lead International Aid Effort

Burma officials have invited representatives of several countries to visit the cyclone-hit delta in a bid to deflect criticism that it is mismanaging relief operations. U.S. diplomats say they have not been contacted. Video by AP
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By Glenn Kessler and Amy Kazmin
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Burma's government believes it will need large-scale food aid if rice replanting in the devastated Irrawaddy Delta is not completed in the next three weeks, and it estimates that 75 percent of schools were destroyed or damaged in areas pummeled by Tropical Cyclone Nargis, according to a report by an emergency assessment team sent by Southeast Asian nations.

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A "rapid mobilization of funds, equipment and saline resistant seeds and the urgent resettlement of farmers will help ensure that there will be a harvest," said the report, which was compiled for the foreign ministers of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which includes Burma.

At an emergency meeting in Singapore yesterday, ministers said Burma had given the bloc the go-ahead to lead international relief and reconstruction efforts after the cyclone, which Burmese officials now estimate caused $10 billion in damage to the impoverished, isolated country. Aid officials hope that this framework will open the way for foreign relief to enter the country from all over the world.

Burma's xenophobic military rulers are deeply suspicious of Western governments and their offers to send people into the country, rejecting U.S. proposals to have Navy ships and helicopters deliver supplies directly to the disaster zone. But from the start, the generals have been more receptive to letting fellow Asians help.

The confidential ASEAN report also said that "temporary schools should be established in the immediate future before longer term construction can begin." It emphasized the dire situation facing the victims and suggested that a major infusion of aid was necessary to assist Burma. The United Nations announced it will hold a pledging conference in Rangoon on Sunday.

George Yong-Boon Yeo, Singapore's foreign minister, told reporters he envisioned a "major role to be played by the World Bank and the ADB," the Asian Development Bank, even though neither institution has done business in Burma since 1990.

ASEAN Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan met with World Bank President Robert B. Zoellick in Washington last week. Zoellick pledged technical expertise, not loans, to the emergency response. Yeo indicated yesterday that he expected the World Bank to circumvent its restrictions in assisting Burma, which is also known as Myanmar.

But Sarah Cliffe, director of operations for the World Bank's East Asia and Pacific region, issued a statement late last night saying that Zoellick "made it clear that the Bank's assistance, through ASEAN, will constitute expertise in assessing the devastation and planning for reconstruction and recovery." She added that "there is no suggestion that the World Bank will now provide financial support to the Government of Myanmar, which has been in arrears to the Bank since 1998."

The Burmese government yesterday declared a three-day period of national mourning, as the chief U.N. relief official, John Holmes, toured the Irrawaddy Delta, the focus of the storm's devastation. Ban Ki-moon, the U.N. secretary general, is due to arrive in Rangoon, Burma's largest city, tomorrow for further talks on the aid efforts.

Nargis struck on May 2-3. So far, the official government count of the human toll is about 78,000 people killed and 56,000 missing.

According to the ASEAN task force, Burma would "consider specific needs and specific offers of help," but Yeo said there would not be unrestricted access to the disaster zone for foreign aid workers.

The program is meant to be "an ASEAN-branded, multilateral relief effort," said one Burma expert familiar with the talks. The expert noted, however, that it is unclear how much of that concept would be followed in practice. "ASEAN recognizes itself that it doesn't have the capacity to actually run this thing," he said.

It was unclear, the expert continued, whether the generals would permit a dramatic increase in the flow of foreign aid, or whether their cooperation with the ASEAN initiative is merely a "tactical concession to relieve the pressure of the moment."

"They understand that their reputation is taking a beating because of their failure to open up the country; their allies are starting to get uncomfortable with this, and they need to be seen to be doing something," he said. "The risk here is that this won't fundamentally alter realities on the ground."

The junta has previously declared that relief efforts are over, and Gen. Than Shwe, the powerful junta chief, was shown on state television yesterday inspecting a model relief camp.

Kazmin reported from Bangkok.

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