May 20, 2008 / 7:22 AM / 11 years ago

WRAPUP 6-Myanmar mourns dead, U.N. reports aid progress

* Myanmar starts three days of mourning

* Top U.N. aid official in talks with Myanmar PM

* Myanmar to allow Japanese aid workers (Adds U.N. Secretary General quote)

By Aung Hla Tun

YANGON, May 20 (Reuters) - Flags flew at half-mast across Myanmar on Tuesday for the victims of Cyclone Nargis as the U.N.’s top aid envoy pressed the military government to allow foreign helicopters to fly in supplies to survivors.

The first day of the three-day mourning period passed in torrential rain and diplomatic prodding of the reclusive generals to allow more international aid after a cyclone that struck two weeks ago, leaving nearly 134,000 dead or missing.

“There are still a lot of supplies needed to get in in the future in terms of food, but not just for now but for some months to come,” U.N. humanitarian chief John Holmes told reporters after meeting Prime Minister Thein Sein.

He said military-run camps in the devastated Irrawaddy Delta for the homeless “seemed well organised” but most survivors were still without shelter.

Holmes said he had discussed the use of helicopters with the general, who “took note” of his suggestion.

Myanmar has allowed relief flights to deliver supplies to Yangon but balked at any aerial access to the southwestern delta, where an estimated 2.4 million people were left destitute.

“I hope we can reach agreement on that,” Holmes said. “I think the use of more helicopters from outside would be most welcome.”

The army’s declaration of a mourning period after the first visit on Monday to the delta since the cyclone by 75-year-old junta supremo Than Shwe, was taken as a possible sign the leadership had woken up to the scale of the catastrophe.

“The old man must have been shocked to see the real situation with his own eyes,” one retired government official said in Yangon, the former capital where the start of the monsoon season has caused more flooding and misery for storm victims.

The top general, who has run the country since 2005 from Naypyidaw, a new capital 250 miles (390 km) north of Yangon, was shown on state-run TV touring hard-hit towns and again on Tuesday, offering words of encouragement and giving orders.

U.N. BOSS ON THE WAY

In another high-level diplomatic mission, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was to arrive in the Thai capital Bangkok on Wednesday and go to Myanmar on Thursday.

Asked by reporters before his departure whether he would meet Than Shwe, Ban said: “I will be, I hope I will be meeting Senior General Than Shwe and other senior government officials.”

In Tokyo, the Southeast Asian country’s ambassador told the foreign ministry it would allow Japanese relief workers in to help victims, a ministry official said.

Until the last few days, the junta’s attention appeared to have been on a May 10 referendum on an army-drafted constitution intended to precede multiparty elections in 2010. The vote was postponed to May 24 in areas worst-hit by the cyclone.

The official toll is 77,738 killed and 55,917 missing, one of the worst cyclones to hit Asia in decades. The government has estimated the damage at $10 billion.

Than Shwe’s appearance coincided with moves by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), of which Myanmar is a member, and the U.N. to convene an aid pledging conference on Sunday in Yangon and work on a bigger aid delivery plan.

Historically the military in the former Burma has been suspicious of foreign interference. That distrust has deepened since the wave of international outrage and tighter sanctions following last year’s crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators.

Flags flew at half mast from government buildings and a few private buildings amid growing criticism of the slow and insufficient measures mustered by the military.

But the New Light of Myanmar, the junta’s main mouthpiece, quoted Than Shwe as saying the government “took prompt action to carry out the relief and rehabilitation work shortly after the storm”.

Some donors returning from the outskirts of Yangon said the authorities were handing out leaflets telling people not to hand donations directly to victims, but to do it under their management.

The leaflets said the handouts might make victims “lazy and more dependent on others”, people who were given them said.

“One young man felt very sad to see what was written in the leaflet,” one woman said. “He murmured ‘what are we supposed to do if we don’t depend on donations in this situation?’.”

Although there is little detail of how ASEAN will carry out what it called an aid “mechanism”, Western governments and relief groups know it is the only option acceptable to the generals.

“It’s a face-saving way to get them to admit outside help, but we’ll have to wait and see if it works or if it’s a fudge,” one humanitarian official told Reuters.

The United States and France have naval vessels waiting in waters near Myanmar ready to deliver supplies, but whether or not the generals will permit them to do so is still not known. (Additional reporting by Ed Cropley in BANGKOK and Claudia Parsons at the UNITED NATIONS) (Writing by Grant McCool; Editing by Darren Schuettler and Alex Richardson)

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