United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon flew into Burma's (Myanmar's) disaster zone Thursday, in a visit that could be a tipping point for international attempts to deal with Burma's reclusive military, which has shunned most world leaders since taking power in 1962.
Mr. Ban met with Burmese Prime Minister Thein Sein for 90 minutes in Rangoon (Yangon), and also with the heads of international aid agencies seeking permission to deliver aid directly to desperate survivors in remote coastal areas of the Irrawaddy Delta.
"The United Nations and all the international community stand ready to help to overcome the tragedy," Ban said after his arrival. "The main purpose of my being here is to demonstrate my solidarity."
The success of Ban's mission will largely depend on whether he can meet reclusive Senior Gen. Than Shwe on Friday in his new capital, Naypyitaw. Such a meeting would vindicate efforts by the UN and Asian leaders to rely on diplomatic avenues to pry open doors to much-needed aid and relief workers. A rebuff could cloud prospects for an international aid conference, planned for Sunday in Rangoon, and embolden calls, mainly from Europe, to deliver aid by force from four US warships and others from France and Britain waiting off Burma's southern coast. It could also further anger Burmese citizens squeezed by skyrocketing prices and military crackdowns since monk-led protests last September.
Until now, General Shwe has refused to answer Ban's calls or letters, and in the past has also snubbed Ibrahim Gambari, Ban's special envoy to Burma.
Shwe made his first public appearance early this week, more than two weeks after cyclone Nargis flooded a region that is home to an estimated 3.5 million people and 30 percent of Burma's rice production.
Pressure from Burmese leaders?
"There's tremendous pressure from within his own group," says Josef Silverstein, professor emeritus of political science at Rutgers University in New Jersey. "There are senior officers who may be quietly trying to get him to open up in certain ways. These men are not idiots. They have radio and TV. They know what's going on.
"They have this delusion of grandeur, and they are being called all kinds of names, people with no heart or sympathy," he continues. "I believe there's an internal pressure in the ruling group. More importantly, I think they're getting pressure from China. China has quietly been trying to act as intermediaries to get them to open up."
Professor Silverstein says that while foreign pressure is working "in a Burmese way," he expects the Burmese will follow their pattern of appearing to listen and "cave in" to criticism, and then do little or nothing after the world looks away.
Ban, a career diplomat and former South Korean foreign minister, appears to be using the Asian style of avoiding public threats and confrontation to solve problems behind closed doors.
"The secretary-general has learned that if you want to get information, you have to go right to the top yourself," says Silverstein, reached by phone in Princeton, N.J.
After flying in from Thailand, where hundreds of aid workers have been denied visas for Burma, Ban was escorted through a heavy security deployment of armed riot police dotting the road into the city. He visited Rangoon's Shwedagon pagoda, the spiritual heart of the country.
"I praise the will, resilience, and the courage of the people of Myanmar. I bring a message of hope for the people of Myanmar," he said as bells chimed. Following local tradition, Ban removed his shoes and socks and stepped barefoot around the pagoda, handing the shrine's trustees a donation for cyclone victims.
Ban toured by helicopter the inundated Irrawaddy Delta, home to most of the 78,000 dead and 56,000 missing, by state estimates. He also visited a refugee camp, where Burmese occupied 100 new blue tents.
Ban has apparently tried to curry favor with the generals by not scheduling a meeting with their archenemy, pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Confined to her Rangoon villa for most of the past 18 years, her current period of detention is due to expire Monday.
Ban told Prime Minister Thein Sein that mutual trust was needed between Burma and the international community, which was prepared to send in airplanes and helicopters to bolster the relief effort.
Burma: relief phase ending
In contrast to reports of an emergency situation in the delta, Thein Sein told Ban that the relief phase of the government's operation was ending and focus had now shifted to reconstruction.
But the International Red Cross says corpses still contaminate rivers and ponds in the Bogale area of the delta, and many people still need aid.
"In 30-plus years of humanitarian emergency work this is by far – by far – the largest case of emergency need we've ever seen," Lionel Rosenblatt, president of Refugees International, told the Associated Press. "Yet right offshore, right here in Thailand, we have the means to save these people."
In Bangkok Thursday, Surin Pitsuwan, secretary general of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which, with the UN, is backing the conference Sunday, said aid countries need to see the damage themselves.
Ban said Tuesday that the UN had received permission from the junta to use nine World Food Program helicopters to carry aid to victims in inaccessible areas.
The regime has been letting US military C-130 cargo planes fly in relief goods. But the state-controlled New Light of Myanmar said Wednesday that US helicopters and ships could not join the relief effort because of "strings attached."
"They are very aware that the US and the West helped Aceh," says Silverstein. "Even Muslims in Aceh were very pleased by the way they were treated. They would love to have the food and aid on their doorstep. But they don't want to seem eager."
He says the junta has declined foreign relief workers because it wants Burmese people to look only to them for leadership. "That," he says, "has been their teaching."