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Burma Access Issue Stops Donors Making More Aid Pledges

Most donor nations stopped short Sunday, May 25 of making new pledges of aid to Burma as they awaited more details on access and accountability. Meanwhile, German aid workers finally reached victims of the cyclone.

Locals displaced by Cyclone Nargis line up outside their tents

Three weeks after Cyclone Nargis hit Burma, aid has reached only 25 percent of victims

Despite the reluctance to commit further, most observers said the meeting was a step forward.

"It was a reasonable success," said Frederich Hamburger, European Union Ambassador to Burma and Thailand, of a United Nations-ASEAN sponsored pledging conference held in Yangon Sunday, almost three weeks after Cyclone Nargis smacked into the country's central coast leaving at least 133,000 people dead or missing.

In recent weeks, Burma's response to the catastrophe has been widely criticized for throwing roadblocks in the way of an international relief effort, by slowing the logistics of getting emergency supplies to an estimated 2.4 million needy victims of the cyclone and for reluctantly granting visas to foreign relief experts keen to enter the country and the areas hardest hit by the storm.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon scored a diplomatic success on Friday when he won assurances from Burma's junta chief Senior General Than Shwe that the regime would grant visas to "all" foreign aid experts.

On Sunday, Burma's Prime Minister Thein Sein clarified that all aid and aid workers were welcome on the provision that they came with "no strings attached."

"We will warmly welcome any assistance and aid which are provided with genuine good will from any country or organization providing that there are no strings attached, nor politicization involved," Thein Sein told the conference.

The conference attracted representatives from about 44 countries, several UN agencies, ministers from the 10 members of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN), the Red Cross movement and at least five non-governmental organizations.

Pledges linked to increased access

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, left, is videotaped by a Burmese soldier

Even Ban Ki-Moon has been monitored by the junta

A key issue at the conference was whether Burma's reclusive and notoriously paranoid junta would allow greater access to the country and the Irrawaddy delta to foreign aid workers, who have been outraged by the government's restriction on their movements that have been impeding aid supplies to victims of the cyclone.

"Expert and experienced international relief workers, in addition to the medical teams from neighbouring countries, must have unhindered access to the areas hardest hit by the disaster," UN chief Ban said in his opening remarks to the conference.

The conference, co-chaired by UN humanitarian affairs chief John Holmes and ASEAN Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan, hoped to get donor countries to open their chequebooks for ongoing disaster relief and soon-to-be needed reconstruction work in the Irrawaddy, which is Burma's traditional rice bowl.

"Some countries like China made new pledges, but most are still waiting to see more details on access, accountability and for a thorough assessment of the damage done," said Hanke Veit, Burma director for the European Commission Humanitarian Aid Office (ECHO).

"But the conference was a success in the sense that it was another step in the right direction," she added. "What's needed now is to see what the new procedures are for granting visas and access to the Irrawaddy."

German aid makes it to Irrawaddy delta

More than three weeks after the catastrophe, international aid has reached only 25 per cent of the affected people, many of whom have been stranded without access to supplies in remote regions of the Irrawaddy delta.

Equipment is packed at the technical aid organisation THW for a possible transport to Burma

Germany's THW organization has now reached victims

German Foreign Office State Minister Gernot Erler, who is in Yangon, told reporters that for the first time German aid workers with the Federal Agency for Technical Relief (THW) succeeded in proceeding to the delta with two water purification machines.

He called this "a real breakthrough." They can produce 120,000 drinkable litres of water a day, and that should be up and running by Sunday evening.

He arrived with a German Army plane with eight tons of goods.

Germany has donated 4 million euros so far to aid agencies for Burma and was willing to give more aid, he said, but he was waiting for a needs assessment.

Burma's ruling junta has come under harsh international criticism for failing to facilitate a multimillion-dollar disaster relief effort for their own people by slowing logistics and preventing foreign workers from entering the country or the delta.

The conference was also a diplomatic test for ASEAN, which has set up a task force to ease the implementation of the aid flow with Burma's paranoid generals. Burma joined ASEAN in 1997.

"ASEAN is providing the diplomatic architecture," said Surin at a recent press conference. "What we bring to the table is a degree of confidence, a degree of comfort."

ASEAN has set up a "core working group" of nine members, with three from ASEAN, three from the UN and three from the Burmese government that will take responsibility for coordinating the relief effort hereafter

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