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Burma (Myanmar) opens door for aid, but remains wary

A donor conference Sunday pledged some $100 million, but participating nations said aid was conditional on greater access.

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / May 27, 2008

Talking: Burmese Prime Minister Lt. Gen. Thein Sein (white jacket) listen to UN chief Ban Ki Moon (back to camera) at a meeting Sunday.

Stan Honda/AP

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Bangkok, Thailand

A drumbeat of diplomatic pressure on the military rulers of Burma (Myanmar) has cracked open the door for more international aid to reach cyclone survivors after weeks of scattershot deliveries. But the junta's reflexive suspicion of the Western powers' offer of humanitarian help, and the hands-off approach of China and India toward the crisis, may continue to frustrate relief efforts, particularly if Burma's neighbors fail to stay engaged, say regional analysts, aid officials, and Western diplomats.

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Among the key issues has been the loosening of strict controls on foreign aid workers pressing for unfettered access to the disaster zone. In an apparent breakthrough, Burma's reclusive leader, Gen. Than Shwe, told visiting UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon on Friday that he would be more flexible on access, a stance echoed by other Burmese government officials at an international donors' conference held Sunday in the commercial capital Rangoon (Yangon).

The UN says that up to 2.4 million Burmese need emergency assistance and has begun raising $200 million for a six-month relief program. Nearly 80,000 people are said to have died; 56,000 are counted as missing.

But Western donors demurred at Burma's request Sunday for billions in reconstruction funds, insisting that foreign aid agencies be given freer rein to tackle the crisis before any longer-term commitments. The US, as well as other Western nations, said it would boost its current pledge if granted the ability to assess the disaster zone.

"The relief phase is ongoing, and it's going to take months to get into ... reconstruction," says Lars Backstrom, Finland's ambassador to Burma, who saw the disaster zone last week.

Aid agencies said Monday that restrictions on foreign specialists already in Burma appear to be easing, and they expressed optimism that more would be allowed to enter the country.

"In the last few days ... the visa situation has greatly opened up, and access to the affected area has begun to open up. We can call it fragile, but concrete, evidence is encouraging. Of course, [Burma] has to open up much more to get the right experts in and to get them to where it counts," says Kathleen Cravero, UN Development Program director for the Bureau for Crisis Prevention and Recovery.

But the visa process was interrupted when the Burmese Embassy in Bangkok shut down its visa section after a fire destroyed the second floor. And a frustrated France said Sunday that it would unload aid that has been waiting off the coast in a French ship in Phuket, Thailand, to be taken to Burma by the World Food Program. Still, Burma has approved deployment of 10 WFP helicopters to ferry supplies, with an air-bridge taking shape in Thailand.

The concessions follow weeks of coaxing of an isolated regime that has proven largely impervious to outside persuasion from the United States and other Western critics. Strident calls for China and other Asian allies to pressure the junta or else prepare for a possible outside humanitarian intervention appeared to go unheeded, though, as China insisted that Burmese sovereignty must be respected above all.

Donor aid for Burma

About 50 nations at a UN conference Sunday in Rangoon (Yangon) pledged more than $100 million:

• European Commission added $27 million to current $72 million.

• China boosted total pledge to $11 million.

• Australia pledged $24 million.

• The Philippines doubled its previous pledge to $20 million.

• South Korea increased its earlier pledge to a total of $2.5 million.

• The US (which has pledged $20 million) and other Western nations said much more aid was available if foreign assessment teams were admitted.

Source: Associated Press, Reuters

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