UN chief goes to Myanmar to cajole junta

May 21, 2008 1:43:12 PM PDT
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon heads to Myanmar on Thursday for the diplomatic challenge of a lifetime - persuading the ruling generals to let in a torrent of foreign assistance for cyclone victims. He urged the junta Wednesday to focus on saving lives, not on politics, after it refused an American proposal for U.S. warships to deliver relief supplies.

"We must do our utmost for the people of Myanmar," Ban told reporters after arriving in Bangkok. "This is a critical moment for Myanmar. The government itself acknowledges that there has never been a disaster on this scale in the history of their country."

By the junta's own count, at least 134,000 people are dead or missing from the May 2-3 cyclone. The U.N. says up to 2.5 million survivors are hungry and homeless and there are worries about disease outbreaks in the Irrawaddy River delta.

"The issues of assistance and aid in Myanmar should not be politicized. Our focus now is on saving lives," Ban said.

Yet Ban, a career diplomat who was South Korea's foreign minister before taking the U.N. post, is wading into a situation fraught with politics. Myanmar's top generals have always viewed relations with the world through a dark, political prism.

The isolationist regime is deeply suspicious of outsiders. And the junta is antagonistic toward the United Nations over its lead role in international pressures to restore democracy, seeing the world body as a stooge of the United States and other Western nations.

Ban hopes to put those suspicions on the shelf for now, arguing that he is not coming to attack the military regime, but only to address overwhelming humanitarian needs.

"We have a functioning relief program in place. But so far we have been able to reach only about 25 percent of the people in need," Ban said.

Myanmar has slowly geared up to receive material assistance for storm victims, particularly from neighboring nations, but it is still reluctant to accept more than a relative handful of foreign rescue and relief workers experienced in disaster work.

World Food Program officials in Bangkok said Myanmar had agreed to allow the U.N. agency to use 10 helicopters to deliver aid to stranded cyclone survivors beginning Thursday.

It wasn't clear when the operation would start. The helicopters had to be chartered, flown in on cargo planes to Thailand and reassembled. "We are doing everything we can to get them in as soon as possible," WFP official Marcus Prior said.

He said the helicopters, each capable of carrying three tons of supplies, had permission to fly directly to the devastated delta region, rather than having to drop off their loads at the airport in Yangon, Myanmar's main city.

But Myanmar rejected such help from the United States, whose military is equipped to provide immense and immediate logistical help. Myanmar's state-controlled media said U.S. helicopters and warships were not welcome to join the relief effort.

The United States, France and Britain have naval vessels loaded with supplies - and the means to deliver them - off Myanmar's coast, waiting for a green light. The article did not say whether the French and British supplies would be allowed.

The New Light of Myanmar newspaper, a mouthpiece for the junta, said accepting military-linked assistance "comes with strings attached" that are "not acceptable to the people of Myanmar." It hinted at fears of a U.S. invasion aimed at grabbing the country's oil reserves.

However, the regime has allowed in 40 aid flights by U.S. military C-130 cargo planes, including four Wednesday.

Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said the four Navy ships off Myanmar would remain in hopes that the junta might relent and approve delivery of aid by U.S. helicopter.

"It's very hard to see that type of suffering that's going on ... and to turn your back and leave," Whitman said.

Ban, a gentle, soft-spoken man who has been described as a natural diplomat, told reporters his two-day visit to Myanmar would include talks with government officials, including the junta's leader, Senior Gen. Than Shwe.

He is entering a land where U.N. officials have little to show for previous efforts to promote democracy and human rights other than vague promises from a junta that has continued to follow its own repressive path.

People in Myanmar are very aware of the U.N. failures, knowing that opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi is still under house arrest and that the government is pushing through a draft constitution that ensures the military retains a commanding role in politics. Many people interviewed on the streets of Myanmar were skeptical about Ban's chances.

"What can he do? He can't do anything," said Khyaw Htun Htun, a businessman handing out beef curry and rice to storm victims at the Shwe Daw monastery near Yangon, one of the many private citizens who have mobilized to help the needy.

"People are hopeful, of course. Then all hope crashes when he leaves," Khyaw Htun Htun added, making a diving motion with his hand. "They (the generals) won't care what the U.N. says."

The monastery in South Dagon has become a refuge for 258 people, most of them women and children. When donated food was dropped off Wednesday, hundreds of children ran from side streets of the village to join the refugees in the monastery hall for lunch.

In a statement welcoming Ban's trip, Suu Kyi's opposition National League for Democracy criticized government relief efforts. "It is observed that the relief and rehabilitation works in the areas where there have been incredible loss of lives and property could not have been performed competently, effectively or in timely manner," a party statement said.

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Associated Press writers Denis D. Gray and Jocelyn Gecker in Bangkok and Pauline Jelinek in Washington contributed to this report.

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