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Donor nations offer aid but tie it to access in Myanmar

May 26, 2008|From Times Wire Services

YANGON, MYANMAR — Donor nations say they are ready to provide Myanmar with more than $100 million to help it recover from Tropical Cyclone Nargis, but are warning that they will not fully open their wallets until the military government gives them access to the hardest-hit areas.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, after a meeting Sunday of 51 donor nations, again said he was optimistic that foreign aid workers would soon get unhindered access to the devastated Irrawaddy delta.

But leaders in Myanmar, also known as Burma, took a guarded tone.

Prime Minister Lt. Gen. Thein Sein said aid "with no strings attached" was welcome. But he hedged on the sensitive issue of direct access, saying that only civilian vessels could take part in the aid operation and that they would have to go through Yangon.

That seemed to nix plans for U.S., British and French warships loaded with humanitarian supplies to join in the relief operation. The ships have been off Myanmar's coast for more than a week.

The French Foreign Ministry released a statement Sunday in Paris that said its navy would divert its cargo to neighboring Thailand.

The statement said the U.N. World Food Program would take charge of the shipment and ensure that it gets to cyclone victims. The French statement said "nothing justified" the denial of victims' access to the aid.

Myanmar's leaders have virtually barred foreign aid workers and international agencies from the delta because they fear a large influx of foreigners could lead to political interference.

The military government is also hesitant to have its people see aid arriving directly from countries like the United States, which it has long treated as a hostile power seeking to invade or colonize.

Saying 3,200 tons of humanitarian supplies had already been delivered from abroad, Thein Sein presented a long list of urgent needs, including temporary shelters, rice seeds, fertilizer, fishing boats and new salt factories.

Official estimates put the death toll at about 78,000, with an additional 56,000 missing. Myanmar has estimated the damage at about $11 billion.

But skepticism hung over Sunday's conference.

"It is for a lack of information that not more has been given at this particular time. The problem is not on the generosity, but the problem is one of establishing greater trust between Myanmar and the world community," said George Yeo Yong Boon, Singapore's foreign minister.

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