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Reclusive Burmese leader meets cyclone victims

Latest update : 2008-05-18

A first public appearance in relation to cyclone aid efforts by Burmese leader Than Shwem, and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon travel to Burma signal a possible breakthrough on foreign aid impasse.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon will travel to Myanmar this week to discuss the troubled cyclone aid operations, his spokeswoman said on Sunday, as signs of a breakthrough on the issue mounted.
 
Ban's spokeswoman Michele Montas also said she expected there would be a conference in Bangkok on May 24 to marshal funds for the relief effort.
 
"I can confirm he (Ban) is going to Myanmar this week," she said by telephone, adding he was expected to arrive by Wednesday or Thursday.
 
Britain's Asia minister said a turning point could be near on a framework to accelerate international aid to the millions needing help after Cyclone Nargis slammed into Myanmar's Irrawaddy delta early this month. 

Than Shwe, the reclusive leader of Myanmar's military junta, made a public appearance on Sunday for the first time in relation to the cyclone aid effort.

Aid has been trickling in for the up to 2.5 million people affected by the cyclone. Myanmar's military rulers, suspicious of the outside world, have been reluctant to admit major foreign operations and the workers to run them.
 
But Britain's Asia minister, Mark Malloch-Brown, said a framework was being set up for a U.N.- and Asian-led system that could solve the impasse and make it easier to channel in aid.



TURNING POINT
 
"I think we're potentially at a turning point but, like all turning points in (Myanmar), the corner will have a few 'S' bends in it," he told Reuters in an interview.
 
Later Myanmar state television showed Than Shwe meeting in Yangon with ministers involved in the rescue effort, and touring some cyclone-hit areas in the immediate vicinity.
 
The generals moved the country's capital to Naypyidaw, 400 km (250 miles) north from Yangon, the former Rangoon, in 2005, and Than Shwe has rarely been seen in public since. 

The United Nations' chief humanitarian officer, John Holmes, arrived in Yangon on Sunday night, and was expected to deliver a message from Ban to the generals.
 
Ban had previously proposed a "high-level pledging conference" to deal with the crisis, as well as having a joint coordinator from the U.N. and ASEAN to oversee aid delivery. 

Than Shwe had refused to talk to Ban on the phone since the cyclone. But analysts speculated his appearance in Yangon meant he was likely to meet Holmes, or possibly Ban later in the week. 

Thousands of children could die within weeks if food does not get to them soon, the aid organisation Save the Children said on Sunday.
 
The World Food Programme (WFP) said separately that it had managed to get rice and beans to 212,000 of the 750,000 people it thinks are most in need after the May 2 storm, which left at least 134,000 dead or missing. 

Malloch-Brown said the United Nations estimated that help had so far reached fewer than 25 percent of the people in need.

But now, he said, "I'm confident we've got movement here in the sense we've diplomatically found an answer to the stand-off".


HISTORIC DISASTER
 
In the last 50 years, only two Asian cyclones have exceeded the human cost of Nargis -- a 1970 storm that killed 500,000
people in neighbouring Bangladesh, and another that killed 143,000 in 1991, also in Bangladesh. 

If the reclusive military government does not open its doors to a large-scale tsunami-style aid operation, disaster experts say Nargis's body count could still climb dramatically.

Malloch-Brown came to Yangon after first visiting some members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
 
He said the Asian/U.N.-led process had already begun, with Asian nations considered friendly by Myanmar sending aid teams in, and an ASEAN assessment team on the ground.
 
That team will report to a meeting of foreign ministers from ASEAN, of which Myanmar is a member, in Singapore on Monday. Other countries would make their contributions through this channel, he said.
 
Despite his optimism about a possible breakthrough, Malloch-Brown said that, because of Myanmar's suspicions of the outside, operations were still unlikely to involve foreign aid worker numbers comparable to other recent disasters in Asia.
 
The reluctance of the Myanmar military, which has ruled for the last 46 years, to allow a foreign aid worker influx appears to stem from fear of losing its vice-like grip on power.

Date created : 2008-05-18

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