UN chief urges Burma's junta to accept foreign aid

Three weeks after Cyclone Nargis killed at least 130,000 Burmese and left more than two million homeless, the United Nations secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, toured the devastated Irrawaddy delta by helicopter and urged the military regime to accept more foreign aid.

"I bring a message of hope for the people of Myanmar," Mr Ban said after making an offering at Rangoon's Shwedagon pagoda, the holiest Buddhist temple in the country. "I hope your people and government can co-ordinate the flow of aid so the aid work can be done in a more systematic and organised way."

On his three-hour tour of the delta, the South Korean diplomat passed over rice fields covered in brown sludge, destroyed villages and uprooted trees. His destination was the same model resettlement camp that diplomats based in the country were permitted to see last weekend.

Brigadier General Lun Thi, the Energy Minister in the ruling junta, briefed Mr Ban. "All efforts are being made towards the relief of the victims and for the country soon to return to normal," he said.

General Thein Sein, the Prime Minister, boasted in the regime's mouthpiece, The New Light of Myanmar: "We have already finished our first phase of emergency relief. We are going on to the second phase, the rebuilding stage."

Mr Ban is likely to get a similarly upbeat assessment today when he flies to Naypyidaw, the regime's new capital 250 miles north of Rangoon, to meet the supreme leader, General Than Shwe. In the days after the disaster, the 75-year-old strongman refused to take Mr Ban's calls.

Scepticism about the regime's efforts and probity is widespread. At a meeting in Singapore of the Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean), Burma's Foreign Minister, Nyan Win, said that his country needed $11.7bn (£5.9bn) for rehabilitation and reconstruction. But after a visit to Rangoon, the association's secretary general, Surin Pitsuwan, said: "How do we know it's $11bn? How can we be certain? Accessibility is important to guarantee confidence and verify the damage needs."

Foreign reporters who have managed to smuggle themselves into the devastated region report that many of the worst-hit areas have received no relief at all in the three weeks since the cyclone struck. The UN estimates that 70 per cent of those affected have not received food aid. Many victims of the cyclone are sleeping outdoors with no bedding and no protection from the weather.

In its coverage of the relief effort, The New Light of Myanmar meticulously documents aid arriving in the country, noting yesterday among other things the arrival of "17.12 tons of office equipment, generators, tarpaulin and racks donated by WFP [the World Food Programme], four C-130 flights carrying about 20 tons of plywood, water bottles, blankets, plastic, nylon ropes, hammers and nails donated by the United States". But where all this largesse ends up is anybody's guess, given the regime's continuing refusal to grant access to most Western aid workers.

American, British and French naval vessels are standing by off Burma ready to deliver aid, but on Wednesday the regime's newspaper said that aid from those countries was "unacceptable".

Unicef, which has begun a measles vaccination programme throughout the region, said 30 per cent of children in Laputta township were suffering from diarrhoea or dysentery.

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