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Burma's supremo gives nod to 'all' aid workers

In what he called a "breakthrough", UN chief Ban Ki-Moon said Burma’s military leader Gen. Than Shwe had agreed to let "all" aid workers into the cyclone-struck nation during a meeting in Naypyidaw. (France 24's A. Beaumont reports from Burma)

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Three weeks after Cyclone Nargis slammed into Burma, the country’s reclusive military chief agreed to open the closed Southeast Asian nation to all international aid workers, irrespective of nationalities.

 

The announcement was made by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon Friday after a historic 2-hour meeting with Burmese military leader Gen. Than Shwe in the new Burmese capital of Naypyidaw.

 

“It’s an extraordinary gesture,” said FRANCE 24’s international affairs editor Jean-Bernard Cadier, noting that it was “even more extraordinary since it comes from the top”.

 

At the end of the meeting – the first between a UN chief and a Burmese leader since 1964 – Ban said it was “a very good meeting.” According to Ban, it was the Burmese military chief himself who decided let the aid workers in. “Remember that a few days ago, none of the Burmese generals would even take Ban Ki-moon’s telephone calls,” noted Cadier.

 

Gen. Than Shwe also agreed to allow the airport in the former capital of Rangoon to be used as an international platform for aid distribution.

 

Question of access to remote parts of Irrawaddy Delta

 

FRANCE 24’s Bangkok correspondent Cyril Payen, however, has his doubts. “The wording of the terse declaration is intriguing. Its exact meaning remains unclear,” he said.

 

The key question remains that of the access to Irrawaddy Delta, an area particularly devastated by Cyclone Nargis. “Will the aid workers get the authorization to enter prohibited areas in the Irrawaddy Delta, particularly the most inaccessible southern tip?” asked FRANCE 24’s special correspondent Alice Beaumont, reporting from Burma. (See FRANCE 24’s exclusive reports from the Irrawaddy Delta).

 

International aid groups estimate that about 2.4 million people have been left destitute by Cyclone Nargis. Doctors without Borders’ emergency coordinator in Rangoon, Jean-Sébastien Matte, told France 24 of staff shortages. “At the moment, there are very few international humanitarian workers on the ground. There have been less than ten of us for the past few days,” he said

 

According to UN officials, only a quarter of the survivors have received humanitarian aid. Four US Navy rescue vessels are currently on standby in Burmese territorial waters, as well as the French ship the Mistral, bearing 1,000 tons of relief supplies.

 

A severely isolationist ideology

 

Speaking to reporters after the meeting, Ban admitted that a “breakthrough” has been achieved on the pressing issue of allowing international aid into Burma. The country's ruling junta has been suspicious of Western influences since the early 1960s, when former ruler Ne Win imposed the “Burmese Way of Socialism” - a severely isolationist ideology that seeks to fuse elements of socialism with state-sanctioned Buddhism.

 

Burma’s isolationist model has withstood decades of Western sanctions and international condemnation over the junta’s human rights record, including a brutal Sept. 2007 crackdown on protesting Buddhist monks.

 

The UN and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) have scheduled an international donors’ conference for this Sunday in Rangoon. The junta is calling for $11 billion in aid, but Cyril Payen pointed out that several donor countries do not trust the Burmese regime. “We do not know where the money will go, there are great concerns about transparency to avoid corruption and embezzlement,” he said.

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