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U.N. Head Visits Myanmar to Coax Aid Effort

BY Admin  May 22, 2008 at 11:30 AM EST

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in Myanmar

Ban visited the country’s holiest temple upon arriving in Myanmar during a meeting with Prime Minster Thein Sein. He will also meet with international relief agencies and tour areas of the Irrawaddy delta ravaged by Cyclone Nargis on May 3. The secretary-general will meet Friday with Shwe and other top government leaders.

Calling this a “critical moment” for Myanmar, Ban told reporters in neighboring Thailand, that “the government itself acknowledges that there has never been a disaster on this scale in the history of their country,” the U.N. News Centre reported. Ban added that relief programs have only reached about 25 percent of the estimated 2.4 million people in need, including 1.4 million requiring urgent care.

The United Nations has set up a logistics hub in Thailand to help organize the foreign aid pouring in from the international community, but getting help across Myanmar’s strictly controlled borders has proven arduous.

Since the days following the devastating cyclone, the country’s military junta has loosened its restrictions slightly, but Ban is hoping that they will put more trust into international aid groups “so that the flow of aid and aid workers’ activities can be carried out in a more systematic way,” he said, according to the New York Times.

“Relief flights into Myanmar have increased to about 10 a day, officials said; a distribution system is taking shape; trucks and barges have been contracted to carry supplies into the delta, and international relief workers are mostly receiving visas, although they are still barred from traveling outside the main city, Yangon,” the Times reported.

“We are scaling up, but less quickly than we would have done if we didn’t have the same red tape restrictions,” said Richard Horsey, a spokesman for the United Nations.

The World Food Program flew in 10 helicopters Thursday to deliver enough rice to feed 340,000 people for two weeks, but Ban hopes to address the country’s long-term rehabilitation, which was made more difficult by the fact that many farmers missed their opportunity plant crops for the next season due to cyclone damage.

After meeting with Shwe, Ban will attend a funding conference in Yangon over the weekend to help “reinforce a partnership between Myanmar and the international community, including Association of South East Asian Nations and key neighboring countries, like India and China,” the U.N. News Centre reported.

Some are worried meeting with military junta will make the Secretary-General vulnerable to the agenda of the Myanmar government.

Brad Adams, Asia director for Human Rights Watch, said Ban should be wary of the junta’s “time-tested trap of dangling petty concessions as a delaying tactic,” the Times reported.

“The diplomats shouldn’t be talking about reconstruction when they still need to be talking getting access for emergency aid,” Adams said.

The threat of waterborne disease and starvation continues to rise, with an estimated 30,000 children in the delta suffering from severe acute malnutrition, Save the Children reported.

“With the fast-approaching monsoon season and the end of the planting season in 5 to 7 weeks, prompt action is necessary if further unnecessary suffering is to be avoided,” the relief organization Oxfam said in a statement.

With the continued urgency of Myanmar’s relief, Ban emphasized prior to his meeting with Shwe that politics should not play a part in their meetings.

“Our focus now is saving lives,” he said, according to the Times.

Myanmar’s government has estimated the final death toll will surpass 100,000, and the country will suffer more than $10 billion in financial loss.