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How hard will neighbors push Burma (Myanmar)?

Burma said Monday it would allow in some Southeast Asian aid workers.

By Christopher JohnsonCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / May 20, 2008

ASIAN AID: Foreign ministers – Singapore’s George Yeo (l), Thailand’s Noppadon Pattama (c), and Burma’s Nyan Win (r) – met Monday.

Tim Chong

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With Western naval ships loaded with aid waiting at their door, and visiting UN diplomats demanding faster rescue and relief, Burma (Myanmar) agreed to accept more foreign aid from its neighbors at Monday's emergency meeting of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN).

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While aid workers welcome any increase in aid to Burma, many opponents of Burma's military regime say Asian leaders are moving too slowly – and merely appeasing the junta in order to make business deals and strengthen their group's position in free-trade negotiations with China.

ASEAN is stalling the West by claiming "We're working on this, don't worry," and then saying, "Sorry, I haven't got there yet," says Jeff Kingston, head of Asian studies at Temple University in Tokyo. "In practice constructive engagement has been a fig leaf for ASEAN to invest in Myanmar and exploit its natural resources. ASEAN has not used their engagement in any constructive way, unless you are a businessman."

For example, at a side deal at Monday's meeting, Thailand and Burma agreed to build a seaport and pipeline in southeastern Burma away from the disaster zone.

Still, ASEAN's diplomatic efforts, as well as the perceived threat of American, French, and British warships positioned in the Andaman Sea near the Burmese delta, appear to be yielding limited results to open Burma up to more regional aid.

Burma's much-maligned government allowed UN humanitarian chief John Holmes to visit Rangoon and the hard-hit Irrawaddy Delta Sunday. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon is set to tour the areas this week.

Burma's leader, Gen. Than Shwe, made his first public appearance since the cyclone hit, inspecting camps and meeting survivors in Rangoon suburbs.

ASEAN – which includes Brunei, Burma, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam – will also hold a fundraising meeting May 25 and work on aid packages with the World Bank and Asian Development Bank.

Each member state will also send a 30-member medical team into Burma "very soon," Indonesian Foreign Minister Hassan Wirajuda said.

Chinese, Indian, and Thai medical personnel are already on the ground there. Thailand's team is working in the Irrawaddy Delta, an exception to Burma's limiting foreign aid workers in the country to Rangoon.

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