From: Reuters
Published May 21, 2008 06:19 AM

U.N. chief to Myanmar: focus on saving lives

By Aung Hla Tun

YANGON (Reuters) - U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon began a mission on Wednesday for Myanmar's cyclone victims, saying "our focus now is on saving lives," as the military government gave approval for foreign helicopters to distribute aid.

The U.N. Secretary-General has said relief workers had so far been able to reach only a quarter of those in need among an estimated 2.4 million people made destitute by the May 2 storm and sea surge that left nearly 134,000 dead or missing.

"We must do our utmost for the people of Myanmar," Ban said when he arrived in the Thai capital, Bangkok, before traveling to Myanmar on Thursday. "Aid in Myanmar should not be politicized. Our focus now is on saving lives."

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The United Nations and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), of which Myanmar is a member, are to convene a donors' pledging conference in Yangon on Sunday.

Ban said he would meet the military government's Senior General Than Shwe on Friday.

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 relief effort.

Diplomats say the general's appearances in public in recent days could be a sign the top brass finally realize the enormity of the destruction and rebuilding from one of the worst cyclones to hit Asia.

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 from Malaysia.

"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.

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."

DECLINES U.S. NAVY OFFER

Permission for the WFP helicopters is one 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 recognize 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.

In another sign the junta was taking the 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, compared unfavorably with neighbor China in dealing with the aftermath of a massive earthquake, appeared to have changed just before Monday's emergency meeting of ASEAN in Singapore.

The meeting established a regional aid delivery framework that accommodated the generals' concerns.

(Additional reporting by Darren Schuettler, Nopporn Wong-Anan and Ed Cropley in Bangkok; Writing by Grant McCool; Editing by Alex Richardson)

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