May 21, 2008 / 4:19 AM / 11 years ago

U.N. chief tells Myanmar to focus on saving lives

YANGON (Reuters) - U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon began a mission on Wednesday for Myanmar’s cyclone victims, saying “our focus now is on saving lives”, as the military government gave approval for the first foreign helicopters to distribute aid.

Children sit on a road near utility poles downed by Cyclone Nargis, near Yangon, May 21, 2008. REUTERS/Stringer

The U.N. Secretary-General said relief workers had so far been able to reach only a quarter of those in need among an estimated 2.4 million people made destitute by the May 2 storm and sea surge that left nearly 134,000 dead or missing.

“We must do our utmost for the people of Myanmar,” Ban said when he arrived in the Thai capital, Bangkok, before travelling to Myanmar on Thursday. “Aid in Myanmar should not be politicised. Our focus now is on saving lives.”

The United Nations and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), of which Myanmar is a member, are to convene a donors’ pledging conference in Yangon on Sunday.

The government wants more than $11 billion (5.6 billion pounds) in aid, but international donors need access to verify the needs, ASEAN Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan told Reuters in an interview.

“Accessibility is important to guarantee confidence and verify the damage and needs, otherwise confidence during pledging will be affected,” Surin said on a visit to Yangon.

Ban said he would meet the military government’s Senior General Than Shwe on Friday.

Than Shwe, who took two weeks after the disaster to meet victims and see the destruction for himself, had declined to take Ban’s phone calls earlier in the relief effort.

Diplomats say the general’s appearances in public this week, visiting several Irrawaddy Delta towns, could be a sign the top brass finally realise the enormity of the destruction and rebuilding from one of the worst cyclones to hit Asia.

HELICOPTERS CRITICAL

The U.N.’s World Food Programme (WFP) said the first of nine helicopters granted permission to airlift supplies into the delta would arrive in Yangon on Thursday from Malaysia.

“These helicopters will provide critical life-saving capacity to bring urgently needed relief supplies to cyclone victims deep in the delta,” spokesman Marcus Prior said in Bangkok.

The United Nations says up to 2.4 million people are struggling to survive in Yangon and the Irrawaddy Delta, where refugees from the storm have been begging for food from relief workers.

Yangon-based volunteer Ko Kyaw Khine said authorities in a village he visited on Tuesday used loudspeakers on trucks to tell people not to wait at the roadside because “begging from the donors tarnishes the dignity of the nation”.

The Pentagon said on Wednesday U.S. Navy ships laden with supplies would remain off the coast of Myanmar for now, despite Yangon’s unwillingness to accept assistance from the vessels.

The U.S. military has provided 367 tonnes of relief supplies to Myanmar aboard C-130 transport planes. Four more U.S. aircraft arrived in Myanmar from Thailand on Wednesday, bringing the total number of aid flights to 40, the Pentagon said.

But Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said the volume was insignificant.

EUROPEAN VOTE

European Union lawmakers said on Wednesday the world should force aid on the military government.

“The Burmese authorities are responsible for a crime against humanity,” Polish EU lawmaker Urszula Gacek said, referring to the government of the former Burma.

The European Parliament, which has no legal power over the bloc’s foreign policies but can help shape opinion in the bloc, will on Thursday vote on a resolution urging the U.N. Security Council to consider whether forced aid shipments were possible.

Permission for the WFP helicopters is one sign the junta is starting to make small but — in the case of one of the world’s most closed countries — unprecedented concessions to foreign governments and relief agencies wanting to help.

But a commentary in the junta’s main voice, the New Light of Myanmar, said on Wednesday that “strings attached to the relief supplies carried by warships and military helicopters are not acceptable to the Myanmar people. We can manage by ourselves.”

The generals’ distrust of outsiders is even greater after worldwide outrage at last year’s crackdown on democracy protests. U.N. sources say they have consistently declined offers of Thai, Malaysian and Singaporean military helicopters.

Until this week, the junta’s attention appeared to have been on a May 10 referendum on a constitution drafted by the army and intended to precede multiparty elections in 2010. The vote was postponed to May 24 in areas worst-hit by the storm.

The government’s official toll is 77,738 people killed and 55,917 missing, and it also estimates the damage to one of Asia’s least-developed economies at $10 billion.

The junta has been accused of not giving people enough warning about the storm but on Wednesday the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) said the authorities had issued regular warnings days before the storm hit.

Dieter Schiessl, the U.N. agency’s director of weather and disaster risk reduction, said those in the Irrawaddy Delta did not know how to respond to the warnings.

Slideshow (25 Images)

“Most of the people decided to take shelter by staying home ... That turned out to be a quite disastrous decision,” he told a news conference in Geneva, where the WMO is based.

(Additional reporting by Darren Schuettler, Nopporn Wong-Anan and Ed Cropley in Bangkok, David Morgan in Washington, Laura MacInnis in Geneva and Ingrid Melander in Strasbourg; Writing by Grant McCool; Editing by David Fogarty)

For more stories on Myanmar cyclone follow the link to Reuters AlertNet www.alertnet.org

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