May 21, 2008 / 4:27 AM / 11 years ago

U.N. chief goes on Myanmar cyclone aid mission

* U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon to meet top general Than Shwe

* Myanmar grants WFP permission to use helicopters

* Junta mouthpiece shuns U.S. Navy aid offer

* Survivors beg from donors on roadside (Adds Ban to meet Myanmar’s Senior General)

By Aung Hla Tun

YANGON, May 21 (Reuters) - U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon headed to southeast Asia on Wednesday on a mission to secure more help for cyclone victims in Myanmar, whose military rulers have finally granted an aid agency the use of helicopters to deliver supplies.

U.N. humanitarian envoy John Holmes said Ban would meet Senior General Than Shwe on Friday, probably in Naypyidaw, the new capital in central Myanmar 250 miles (390 km) north of Yangon.

"That should be a very important meeting," Holmes told reporters in Bangkok on Wednesday after a visit to Myanmar to inspect the destruction left by Cyclone Nargis on May 2.

Than Shwe, who took two weeks after the disaster to meet victims and see the destruction for himself, had declined to take Ban’s phone calls earlier in the recovery effort.

Diplomats say his appearances in public in recent days could be a sign the top brass realise the enormity of the destruction and rebuilding from Nargis, one of the worst cyclones to hit Asia with nearly 134,000 people dead or missing.

The U.N. says up to 2.4 million people are struggling to survive in Yangon and the Irrawaddy Delta, where refugees from the storm have been begging for food from relief workers.

Yangon-based volunteer Ko Kyaw Khine said authorities in a village he visited on Tuesday used loudspeakers on trucks to tell people not to wait at the roadside because "begging from the donors tarnishes the dignity of the nation".

The U.N.’s World Food Programme (WFP) said the first of nine helicopters granted permission to airlift supplies into the delta would arrive in Yangon on Thursday.

"These helicopters will provide critical life-saving capacity to bring urgently needed relief supplies to cyclone victims deep in the delta," spokesman Marcus Prior said in Bangkok.

However, private citizens who have been doling out aid on the ground in the delta, where torrential rains are compounding flooding from the cyclone, fretted about where they might land.

"The entire village was in the mud. There was not any hard soil to use as a helipad," said Ko Myo Win, another volunteer.

DECLINES U.S. NAVY OFFER

Permission for the WFP helicopters is another sign the junta is starting to make small but — in the case of one of the world’s most closed countries — unprecedented concessions to foreign governments and relief agencies appealing for more access to victims.

It has allowed aircraft from several countries, including its fiercest critic the United States, to land in Yangon, but has declined an American offer to send food and equipment from U.S. Navy ships and helicopters in the region.

"We recognise that U.S. citizens by nature are generous and they make generous donations to every region that has come under a natural disaster," a commentary in the junta’s main mouthpiece, the New Light of Myanmar, said on Wednesday.

"However, the strings attached to the relief supplies carried by warships and military helicopters are not acceptable to the Myanmar people. We can manage by ourselves," it said.

The generals’ distrust of outsiders is even greater after worldwide outrage at last year’s crackdown on democracy protests. U.N. sources say they have consistently declined offers of Thai, Malaysian and Singaporean military helicopters.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban, who is due in Bangkok on Wednesday and in Yangon on Thursday, has said aid workers had so far been able to reach only around 25 percent of those in need.

A donors’ pledging conference in Yangon on Sunday would be crucial for longer-term rebuilding, Ban said before leaving New York.

FLAGS LOWERED

In another sign the junta was taking the May 2 disaster more seriously, flags across the former Burma flew at half mast on the second day of an official three-day mourning period for the victims of the cyclone’s winds and sea surge, which destroyed villages and turned roads into rivers of mud.

The government’s official toll is 77,738 people killed and 55,917 missing, and it also estimates the damage to one of Asia’s least developed economies at $10 billion.

Until this week, the junta’s attention appeared to have been on a May 10 referendum on a constitution drafted by the army and intended to precede multiparty elections in 2010. The vote was postponed to May 24 in areas worst-hit by the storm.

Diplomats say the government’s attitude — which has been compared unfavourably with neighbour China’s policies in dealing with the aftermath of a massive earthquake — appeared to have changed at the weekend, just before an emergency meeting of Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Singapore.

The meeting established a regional aid delivery framework that accommodated the generals’ concerns. (Additional reporting by Nopporn Wong-Anan, Ed Cropley and Darren Schuettler; Writing by Grant McCool; Editing by Alex Richardson) (For more stories on Myanmar cyclone click on [nSP152717] or follow the link to Reuters AlertNet http://www.alertnet.org)



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