YANGON, May 20 (Reuters) - Myanmar's junta has given the
World Food Program permission to use helicopters to send aid to
cyclone survivors, the United Nations said on Tuesday, as flags
flew at half-staff across the country to mourn the dead.
The first day of a three-day mourning period passed in
torrential rain and diplomatic prodding of the reclusive
generals to allow more international aid after Cyclone Nargis
hit in early May, leaving 134,000 people dead or missing.
The junta in the former Burma has allowed relief flights to
deliver supplies to Yangon, the largest city, but had balked at
aerial access to the southwestern Irrawaddy Delta, where an
estimated 2.4 million people were left destitute.
"We have received government permission to operate nine WFP
helicopters which will allow us to reach areas that have so far
been largely inaccessible," U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon
told reporters before departing for a visit to Myanmar.
Amid warnings that many more people could die in the
Southeast Asian country, Ban said he welcomed the government's
"recent flexibility" but added that aid workers had so far been
able to reach only around 25 percent of those in need.
Ban said a donors' pledging conference in Yangon on Sunday
would be crucial for longer term rebuilding.
The official toll is 77,738 people killed and 55,917
missing, one of the worst cyclones to hit Asia in decades.
Myanmar's government has estimated the damage at $10 billion.
Ban, due to arrive in Thailand on Wednesday and go to
Myanmar on Thursday, said he hoped junta supremo Than Shwe
would be among senior government officials he meets.
The declaration of a mourning period, after the first
post-cyclone visit to the delta by 75-year-old Than Shwe on
Monday, was taken as a possible sign the leadership had awoken up to the scale of the catastrophe.
"The old man must have been shocked to see the real
situation with his own eyes," one retired government official
said in Yangon, where the start of the monsoon season has
caused more flooding and misery for storm survivors.
Than Shwe, who has run Myanmar since 2005 from Naypyidaw, a
new capital 250 miles (390 km) north of Yangon, was shown on
state TV touring hard-hit towns on Monday and again on Tuesday,
offering words of encouragement and giving orders.
U.N. humanitarian chief John Holmes, visiting Myanmar, said
military-run camps in the devastated Irrawaddy Delta "seemed
well organized" but that most survivors had no shelter.
"There are still a lot of supplies needed to get in in the
future in terms of food, but not just for now but for some
months to come," Holmes told reporters after meeting Prime
Minister Thein Sein.
Scot Marciel, the U.S. envoy to the Association of
Southeast Asian Nations, of which Myanmar is a member, said the
junta's response to the disaster has been "appalling" with
hundreds of thousands of lives at risk.
"The door must be opened far wider -- and rapidly -- to
prevent a second catastrophe," he told a congressional hearing
in Washington, adding that responsibility "will fall squarely
on the shoulders" of Than Shwe and Myanmar's other leaders.
In Tokyo, Myanmar's ambassador told the foreign ministry
that Japanese relief workers would be allowed in, a ministry
Until the last few days, the junta's attention appeared to
have been on a May 10 referendum on a constitution drafted by
the army intended to precede multiparty elections in 2010. The
vote was postponed to May 24 in areas worst-hit by the storm.
The military, which has ruled the country in various
incarnations for 46 years, historically has been suspicious of
foreign interference. That distrust has deepened since the wave
of international outrage and tighter sanctions following last
year's crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators.
The New Light of Myanmar, the junta's main mouthpiece,
quoted Than Shwe as saying the government "took prompt action
to carry out the relief and rehabilitation work."
Some donors returning from the outskirts of Yangon said the
authorities were giving out leaflets telling people not to hand
donations to victims but to do it under official management.
The leaflets said the handouts might make victims "lazy and
more dependent on others," said people who got them.
"One young man felt very sad to see what was written in the
leaflet," one woman said. "He murmured 'What are we supposed to
do if we don't depend on donations in this situation?'"
There is little detail of how ASEAN will carry out what it
called an aid "mechanism" but Western governments and relief
groups know it is the only option acceptable to the generals.
"It's a face-saving way to get them to admit outside help,
but we'll have to wait and see if it works or if it's a fudge,"
one humanitarian official told Reuters.
The United States and France have naval vessels waiting in
waters near Myanmar ready to deliver supplies but have yet to
get permission for the ships from the generals.