Door edges open at Myanmar pledging conference

26th May 2008, Comments 0 comments

Ban said there had not been an outpouring of pledges for aid to Myanmar and that the UN would launch a flash appeal in June.

Yangon -- United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said Sunday he was hopeful that efforts to assist cyclone-ravaged Myanmar would gain momentum.

He was speaking at the close of a United Nations-ASEAN sponsored pledging conference held in Yangon amid lingering uncertainty over just how an agreement with the Myanmar military junta on access for international aid workers will be implemented.

Commenting on the junta's promise to facilitate access for international aid workers to stricken areas such as the Irrawaddy delta, Ban said: "I sincerely hope that they will honor their commitment."

Ban said there had not been an outpouring of pledges for aid to Myanmar and that the UN would launch a flash appeal in June.

"This effort will have to continue. I don't think we have completely agreed on everything," he said.

"I hope this marks a new spirit of cooperation between the Myanmar government and the international community," he added.

Most donor nations on Sunday stopped short of making new pledges for relief for victims of Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar as they awaited more details on access and accountability, but observers described the meeting as a step forward.

"It was a reasonable success," said Frederich Hamburger, European Union Ambassador to Myanmar and Thailand, of the conference almost three weeks after Cyclone Nargis smacked into the country's central coast leaving at least 133,000 people dead or missing.

In recent weeks, Myanmar's response to the catastrophe has been widely criticized for throwing roadblocks in the way of an international relief effort, by slowing the logistics of getting emergency supplies to an estimated 2.4 million needy victims of the cyclone and for reluctantly granting visas to foreign relief experts keen to enter the country and the areas hardest hit by the storm.

Ban scored a diplomatic success on Friday when he won assurances from Myanmar's junta chief Senior General Than Shwe that the regime would grant visas to "all" foreign aid experts.

On Sunday, Myanmar Prime Minister Thein Sein clarified that all aid and aid workers were welcome on the provision that they came with "no strings attached."

"We will warmly welcome any assistance and aid which are provided with genuine good will from any country or organization providing that there are no strings attached, nor politicization involved," Thein Sein told the conference.

The conference attracted representatives from about 44 countries, several UN agencies, ministers from the 10 members of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN), the Red Cross movement and at least five non-governmental organizations.

A key issue at the conference was whether Myanmar's reclusive and notoriously paranoid junta would allow greater access to the country and the Irrawaddy delta to foreign aid workers, who have been outraged by the government's restriction on their movements that have been impeding aid supplies to victims of the cyclone.

"Expert and experienced international relief workers, in addition to the medical teams from neighbouring countries, must have unhindered access to the areas hardest hit by the disaster," UN chief Ban said in his opening remarks to the conference.

The conference, co-chaired by UN humanitarian affairs chief John Holmes and ASEAN Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan, hoped to get donor countries to open their chequebooks for ongoing disaster relief and soon-to-be needed reconstruction work in the Irrawaddy, which is Myanmar's traditional rice bowl.

"Some countries like China made new pledges, but most are still waiting to see more details on access, accountability and for a thorough assessment of the damage done," said Hanke Veit, Myanmar director for the European Commission Humanitarian Aid Office (ECHO.)

"But the conference was a success in the sense that it was another step in the right direction," she added. "What's needed now is to see what the new procedures are for granting visas and access to the Irrawaddy."

More than three weeks after the catastrophe, international aid has reached only 25 per cent of the affected people, many of whom have been stranded without access to supplies in remote regions of the Irrawaddy delta.

German Foreign Office State Minister Gernot Erler, who is in Yangon, told dpa that for the first time German aid workers with the Federal Agency for Technical Relief (THW) succeeded in proceeding to the Delta with two water purification machines.

He called this "a real breakthrough." They can produce 120,000 drinkable liters of water a day, and that should be up and running by Sunday evening.

He arrived with a German Army plane with eight tons of goods. Germany has donated 4 million euros so far to aid agencies for Myanmar and was willing to give more aid, he said, but he was waiting for a needs assessment.

Myanmar's ruling junta has come under harsh international criticism for failing to facilitate a multimillion-dollar disaster relief effort for their own people by slowing logistics and preventing foreign workers from entering the country or the delta.

The conference was also a diplomatic test for ASEAN, which has set up a task force to ease the implementation of the aid flow with Myanmar's paranoid generals. Myanmar joined ASEAN in 1997.

"ASEAN is providing the diplomatic architecture," said Surin at a recent press conference. "What we bring to the table is a degree of confidence, a degree of comfort."

ASEAN has set up a "core working group" of nine members, with three from ASEAN, three from the UN and three from the Myanmar government that will take responsibility for coordinating the relief effort hereafter.


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