Hopes for Myanmar cyclone aid rise

By Aung Hla Tun

YANGON (Reuters) - Hopes of a deal to speed up aid tomillions of Myanmar cyclone victims rose on Monday as the U.N.said Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon would visit this week andSoutheast Asia kicked off its own disaster-response meeting.

Ban's trip is expected to culminate in a rare tete-a-tetewith junta supremo Than Shwe, who has refused to answer phonecalls from the United Nations boss since Cyclone Nargis strucktwo weeks ago, leaving 134,000 dead and missing and up to 2.5million destitute.

The United Nations also wants a conference in Bangkok onMay 24 to marshal funds for the relief effort in the formerBurma, where the military government has so far refused toadmit large-scale foreign aid for fear it will loosen its46-year grip on power.

Humanitarian agencies say the death toll from Nargis,already one of the most devastating cyclones to hit Asia, couldsoar without a massive increase of emergency food, shelter andmedicine to the worst-hit region, the Irrawaddy Delta.

Non-government aid organisation Save the Children said in aSunday statement its research had found some "30,000 childrenunder the age of five in the cyclone-affected Irrawaddy Deltawere already acutely malnourished before the cyclone hit".

"Of those, Save the Children believes that several thousandare at risk of death in the next two to three weeks because ofa lack of food."

However, Britain's Asia minister, Mark Malloch-Brown, toldReuters in Yangon on Sunday that diplomats may have turned thecorner in brokering a deal to get aid flowing whichaccommodated the generals' deep distrust of the outside world,in particular the West.

"Like all turning points in Burma, the corner will have afew 'S' bends in it," Malloch-Brown said after a series ofmeetings with top junta officials.

Little is known about the deal, although it is probably nocoincidence that foreign ministers of the Association ofSoutheast Asian Nations (ASEAN), of which Myanmar is a member,were holding a cyclone response meeting on Monday in Singapore.

Malloch-Brown, who came to Yangon after visiting some ASEANmembers, said an Asian/U.N.-led process had already begun andother countries would make contributions through this channel.

Asian nations considered friendly by Myanmar have sent inaid groups and an ASEAN assessment team that has been on theground in the delta is due to report to the Singapore meeting.

"What is important to be discussed now is how ASEAN, asASEAN, can give contributions to Myanmar," said KristiartoLegowo, spokesman for Indonesia's Foreign Ministry, as seniorASEAN officials met at Singapore's Shangri-La Hotel.


While aid has been trickling into Myanmar, the U.N.'s WorldFood Programme (WFP) says it has managed to get rice and beansto just 212,000 of the 750,000 people it thinks are most inneed.

Analysts say strong criticism of the Myanmar junta'sreluctance over foreign aid is unlikely from ASEAN's Singaporemeeting. ASEAN has a policy of non-interference in the internalaffairs of its 10 member states.

"I think everybody has already agreed to engage Myanmar andthis is a very good opportunity to show Myanmar that everybodyis caring," said Clarita Carlos, political science professor atthe University of the Philippines.

"By moral persuasion, the foreign ministers can ask Myanmarto provide the logistical support, the infrastructure becauseit's a less developed economy, to get this aid flowing."

Myanmar analysts are making much of the reclusive ThanShwe's first appearance since the disaster in Yangon, the cityhe deserted in 2005 for a remote new capital 250 miles (390 km)to the north.

State television showed the bespectacled 74-year-old ThanShwe in Yangon on Monday meeting ministers involved in therescue effort and touring some cyclone-hit areas.

The U.N.'s Ban was likely to land in Yangon on Wednesdayevening and travel to the Irrawaddy Delta, his spokeswomansaid.

Meanwhile the U.N.'s chief humanitarian officer, JohnHolmes, began a government tour of the delta on Monday afterflying in on Sunday night, officials said.

He is expected to meet Prime Minister Thein Sein on Tuesdayand deliver a message from Ban to the generals.

Ban previously proposed a "high-level pledging conference"to deal with the crisis, as well as having a joint coordinatorfrom the United Nations and ASEAN to oversee aid delivery.

In the last 50 years, only two Asian cyclones have exceededthe human toll of Nargis -- a 1970 storm that killed 500,000people in neighbouring Bangladesh and another that killed143,000 people in 1991, also in Bangladesh.

At least 232,000 people were killed in December 2004 when atsunami struck nations bordering the Indian Ocean.

(With additional reporting by Olivia Rondonuwu and NeilChatterjee in SINGAPORE and Manny Mogato in MANILA; Writing byEd Cropley and Jerry Norton; Editing by Roger Crabb)