From: Reuters
Published May 25, 2008 08:11 AM

U.N., Myanmar put positive spin on cyclone aid

YANGON (Reuters) - The United Nations and Myanmar's military government put a positive spin on differences over relief and rebuilding needs for millions of cyclone survivors at a pledging conference in Yangon on Sunday.

Aid workers say that three weeks after Cyclone Nargis left 134,000 people dead or missing and up to 2.5 million destitute, parts of the stricken Irrawaddy Delta have still not been reached while the government seeks money for infrastructure.

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U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told the one-day meeting that red tape had been "a serious obstacle to organizing effective aid and assistance operations".

But he added that "the government appears to be moving to implement these accords", referring to a promise made to him by junta supremo Than Shwe on Friday to allow in disaster experts of all nationalities after weeks of restrictions.

Prime Minister Thein Sein thanked the 500 delegates from 50 countries for all the assistance since the May 2 storm and sea surge struck the delta and Yangon, the former capital.

"We would warmly welcome any assistance and aid which are provided with genuine goodwill from any country or organization, provided that there are no strings attached nor politicization involved," Thein Sein, a Lieutenant-General, said.

Much of the fund-raising is likely to centre on the U.N.'s $201 million emergency appeal. Ban said that 30 percent had been contributed and 20 percent pledged.

"I urge you to be more generous today... We have a chance for a new beginning today," he said at the conference, jointly organized by the U.N. and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), of which Myanmar is one of 10 members.

REBUILDING

The government says the combination of its own relief efforts and international help has already moved the operation into the rebuilding phase, and is asking for $11 billion in pledges for resettlement, reconstruction and rehabilitation.

It presented a video on the cyclone and its aftermath, with a tone suggesting things were under control.

The generals said Myanmar had enough rice for itself but a reduced amount for export. It needed to rebuild salt facilities, houses, schools, health clinics, and religious and public buildings.

Minister of National Planning Soe Tha presented a detailed briefing and said more than half a million acres of salt-contaminated farmland needed to be regenerated in time for the next crop season.

For ASEAN, Singapore Foreign Minister George Yeo emphasized the humanitarian nature of the mission and to keep out politics in a country that is under tougher Western sanctions following the army's crackdown on pro-democracy protests last year.

"We must avoid politicizing the aid that we give" and focus on helping the Myanmar people "full stop", Yeo said.

Only a quarter of those in need have been reached and U.N. experts fear more will die if they do not receive a steady supply of food, medical care and equipment in the coming months. Ban said on Sunday he expected the relief effort to run for six months.

A European humanitarian official in Yangon said foreign NGOs were cautiously optimistic that Than Shwe's agreement with Ban would get more aid moving into the delta, which used to be one of Asia's largest rice-growing areas.

She said it was unclear whether Sunday's meeting to secure more funding from international donors would provide any clarity.

"So far it's been bits and pieces. We don't even know what aid the government has delivered, so we can't draw any conclusions," she said.

There were some signs of a loosening of restrictions on the outskirts of Yangon. Roads were no longer guarded by the military, but were lined instead by villagers using double-ended handsaws to cut felled trees.

In Kyauktan 20 km (12 miles) outside of Yangon, survivors were still taking refuge in a Buddhist monastery.

"We are homeless. Every time something goes wrong we get help only from the monks," one woman said.

(Writing by Grant McCool, Editing by Ed Cropley and Alex Richardson)

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