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Burma Will Take Western Diplomats to Visit Cyclone Region

Burma’s ruling junta will take foreign diplomats on a helicopter tour of the destruction caused by a recent cyclone. Yet the military government continues to restrict foreign humanitarian aid.

people walk in the devastated city Bgalei, Myanmar

The UN doesn't have a full picture of the damage

Helicopters carrying Western diplomats are scheduled to fly out of the main Burmese city of Yangon early in the morning on Saturday, May 17. The tour will purportedly give them a first-hand view of the devastation caused by a storm which hit the delta region of Burma on May 2-3.

"We're not expecting to be shown the real picture or be given any freedom to see what we'd like to see," one diplomat told AFP.

And the Burmese government has showed no signs that it will allow foreign aid workers into the region. Humanitarian workers have grown increasingly frustrated with the restrictions, and say as many as 2.5 millions people desperately need help and that Burma is ill-equipped to provide it.

Aid workers emerging from the delta area say that the rice paddies are full of dead bodies and that survivors are in makeshift shelters without enough toilets.

"Relations between Myanmar and the international community are difficult," Louis Michel, the EU's humanitarian aid commissioner, told Reuters. "But that is not my problem. The time is not for political discussion. It's time to deliver aid to save lives."

Extreme food shortages feared

Indonesian officials load aid onto a plane

Foreign aid is trickling in to Burma

The UN World Food Program believes that 390 tons of food are needed each day. Yet less than 300 tons have been distributed since Cyclone Nargis hit Burma's delta area on May 2. At least 43,000 people were killed by the cyclone and 28,000 are missing.

In the weeks since, the ruling military junta has refused to allow most foreign nationals into the Irrawaddy Delta region, insisting that aid will be handled internally.

The European Union's aid chief is among those waiting to gain access to the delta region.

International pressure continues

A top UN official for humanitarian affairs will travel to Burma on Sunday, May 18, in a bid to convince the country's leaders to allow access for UN relief workers. And Burma's southeast Asian neighbors will meet in Singapore Monday to discuss donations.

Yet officials of the various UN agencies lacked the most basic data about the disaster Friday. It's unknown how many children have been orphaned, the extent of diseases or the number of refugee camps. There have been reports of cholera in the region, although the World Health Organization said it does not have evidence of an outbreak.

Myanmar reluctant to accept help

Myanmar Prime Minister Thein Sein, right, points to the map showing the country's devastated areas hit by Cyclone Nargis to his Thai counterpart Samak Sundaravej, left

Burma's military leaders have refused outside help

The EU's Michel was in Burma this week, but said that as of Friday morning he had not received clearance to visit the cyclone area.

Michel said he had only been taken to "a rather perfect, organized camp" outside the main city of Yangon, far from the flooded delta region.

Michel spent two days in Burma, also known as Myanmar, trying to persuade the government to accept more foreign assistance.

Not only has the southwest of the country been off-limits to foreigners, but Burma officials have also barred international staff for aid agencies which already operate inside the country. Reports from aid groups say many survivors have still not received help.

The government has told him it is considering his request for additional visas for international aid workers, but Michel told the AFP news agency the government hasn't explained why the visas have not been granted.

"They didn't answer the question, and they did not give any reason," he said.

Situation not under control

A Myanmar woman looks at the damaged statue of Buddha at the Aung Zey Yong Pagoda and monastery in Kyauktan Township, southern Myanmar

Important Buddhist temples were also damaged

Burma told Michel that if aid groups want to increase their staffing levels in the country, they will need to provide a justification.

Michel said he was able to get two week visa extensions for EU staff currently in the country, although this was short of the four week extension he had hoped for.

Michel said he doesn't believe the regime can handle the cyclone aftermath on its own, or its claim that aid is reaching the survivors.

"They only pretend that everything is under control. They are of course happy with the aid that we are bringing," he told AFP, referring to the planes which have brought supplies.

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