May 25, 2008 / 7:50 AM / 11 years ago

Open up if you want more cyclone aid, Myanmar told

YANGON (Reuters) - Myanmar was promised nearly $50 million in cyclone aid on Sunday, but some Western donor countries said their cash was contingent on the junta keeping its word on letting in foreign aid workers and assessment teams.

A boy displaced by Cyclone Nargis stands in his tent with a Red Cross bag from Thailand as he awaits the arrival of United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon at a refugee camp in Kyondah village, Myanmar May 22, 2008. REUTERS/Stan Honda/Pool

“The Myanmar authorities must turn promises into action. The eyes of the world are watching,” British development minister Douglas Alexander said after a landmark aid conference in the former Burma, under army rule for the last 46 years.

The United States, which deems the country an “outpost of tyranny”, said it was ready to offer more than the $20.5 million of aid sent after the May 2 cyclone that left 134,000 people dead or missing and another 2.4 million destitute.

“However, in order to do so, the government must allow international disaster assistance experts to conduct thorough assessments of the situation,” U.S. envoy to southeast Asia Scot Marciel said.

Three weeks after Nargis pounded the Irrawaddy delta, the United Nations says three in four of those most in need have yet to receive any help — and that hunger and disease could send the death toll soaring if the situation does not change.

The junta, by contrast, says the relief phase of the disaster is already over.

Prime Minister Thein Sein thanked the 500 delegates from 50 countries for the help so far given, and said more would be welcome as long as it came from “genuine goodwill” and “provided that there are no strings attached nor politicisation involved”.

China and some other Asian countries said it was important to keep aid and politics separate in dealing with a regime that has defied all pressure to loosen its vice-like grip on power.

The disaster, one of the worst cyclones ever to hit Asia, has forced the reclusive generals to talk to the outside world but they have managed only in part to overcome their innate distrust of anything foreign.

Junta chief Than Shwe promised visiting U.N. head Ban Ki-moon that all foreign aid workers would be let in, but there is little chance of U.S. and French navy ships waiting near the delta being given permission to fly in relief supplies.

Despite the clear differences of opinion at the meeting, Ban said it had been important in “galvanising the international community’s will to support Myanmar” — a country normally held up as a world pariah.

$11 BILLION?

A senior UN official said the total pledged at the meeting was believed to be nearly $50 million, although the final figure was still being calculated.

Most of the cash will go to the U.N.’s $201 million three-month appeal, which was about 30 percent full before the conference started.

However, the junta is looking to the longer term, saying it needs $11 billion for resettlement, reconstruction and rehabilitation.

It is unclear how it arrived at the figure, although one diplomat said it was strangely similar to the nearly $10 billion in direct economic losses China says it will suffer as a result of this month’s earthquake in Sichuan.

A video presented to the conference about the cyclone and its aftermath gave the impression things were under control.

Later, in a directive read out on state-run television, Than Shwe ordered the planting of mangrove trees and establishment of evacuation routes in the delta to guard against future cyclones.

The country — once the “rice bowl of Asia” — had enough rice for itself but its export surplus was down, the video said, before speaking of the need to rebuild houses, schools, health clinics, and religious and public buildings.

In a detailed briefing, Minister of National Planning Soe Tha said more than half a million acres of salt-contaminated land had to be regenerated in time for planting of the next rice crop, which must happen within a few weeks.

Even in parts of the delta close to Yangon, the situation for most survivors is still dire.

“We are homeless. Every time something goes wrong we get help only from the monks,” said a woman sheltering in a Buddhist monastery in Kyauktan 20 km outside the city.

There were some signs that Than Shwe’s order to ease restrictions on aid workers were filtering through, with checkpoints being removed on some roads into the delta.

But aid workers said the overall picture was still murky. “So far it’s been bits and pieces. We don’t even know what aid the government has delivered, so we can’t draw any conclusions,” one European aid official in Yangon said.

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