Sunday, May 18, 2008

Myanmar lashes out at criticism as junta leader makes first public visit to relief camp


The leader of Myanmar's increasingly isolated ruling junta made his first public visit to a relief camp Sunday as state media lashed out at swelling international criticism that it was closing the door on aid to millions in desperate need following Cyclone Nargis.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, rebuffed in attempts to discuss the situation over the telephone with Myanmar's military leaders, announced he would go to the disaster zone this week to try to ramp up aid efforts.

A senior British official hinted a major breakthrough may also be in the works to allow foreign military ships to join the relief effort, but warnings grew of a potential second wave of death among children hard-hit by the lack of fresh water and proper shelter.

State television reported that junta leader Senior Gen. Than Shwe came down from the capital, Naypyitaw, in the northern jungles to visit relief camps in the Hlaing Thar Yar and Dagon suburbs of Yangon. It showed him inspecting supplies and comforting victims in relatively clean and neat rows of blue tents.

Some survivors clasped their hands and bowed in gratitude as he and a column of military leaders walked past. Than Shwe was shown patting babies on their heads.

The trip was the first by Than Shwe since the May 2-3 storm killed at least 78,000 and left another 56,000 missing.

In the devastated Irrawaddy Delta, farther south, the situation remained grim.

In the city of Laputta, hundreds of children covered their heads from the rain with empty aluminum plates as they lined the street in front of a private donation center. They were given rice, a spoonful of curry and a potato.

"Children only. Please. Children only," shouted a man who stood in the middle of the line, trying to push back the crowd of adults. He explained they were trying to feed children and the elderly first because food supplies were limited and adults could still fend for themselves.

In one of the few positive notes of the day, British Foreign Office Minister Lord Malloch-Brown told the British Broadcasting Corp. that he believes the Myanmar rulers may soon relent on allowing foreign military ships to join in the relief effort, especially if Asian go-betweens are involved.

"I think you're going to see quite dramatic steps by the Burmese to open up," he said. Myanmar is also known as Burma.

One breakthrough appeared to be on the horizon in the junta's dealings with the United Nations.

Ban was to arrive in Myanmar on Wednesday, said his spokeswoman Michele Montas.

The announcement came as John Holmes, the U.N. undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs, arrived in Yangon, Myanmar's largest city, late Sunday to meet with junta leaders.

Than Shwe had refused to take telephone calls from Ban and had not responded to two letters from him, Montas said in New York. Holmes was to deliver a third letter.

Myanmar's leaders have reacted with defensive anger at criticism of their handling of the crisis and stepped up their rhetoric Sunday.

The state-run New Light of Myanmar said in an editorial Sunday that the government, "mobilizing the cooperation of the people, social organizations and departments," has rushed to carry out relief and rehabilitation tasks.

"Rescue and relief works can be expedited effectively thanks to the measures the government has taken to materialize the relief undertakings as scheduled," it said. "Necessary measures are being taken constantly to attend to the basic needs of the people in the relief camps, while specialists are making field trips to the storm-struck areas to provide health care."

It accused foreign news agencies of broadcasting false information that has led international organizations to assume that the government is rejecting aid for storm victims.

"Those who have been to Myanmar understand the actual fact," it said.

State-run radio said the government has so far spent 20 billion kyat (about US$2 million; euro1.3 million) for relief work and has received millions of dollars (euros) worth of relief supplies from local and international donors.

Still, aid agencies say some 2.5 million survivors are in desperate need of help _ food, shelter from intermittent monsoon rains, medicines, clean drinking water and sanitation. A U.N. report said Saturday that emergency relief from the international community had reached only 500,000 people.

Despite the junta's boasts, aid agencies expressed frustration.

U.N. and other major international aid agencies such as World Vision have been forced to depend on their limited local Myanmar staff to distribute aid in the delta. They say a much greater effort is needed if more diseases and deaths are to be prevented.

Save the Children, a global aid agency, said Sunday thousands of children face starvation.

"We are extremely worried that many children in the affected areas are now suffering from severe acute malnourishment, the most serious level of hunger," said Jasmine Whitbread, who heads the agency's operation in Britain. "When people reach this stage, they can die in a matter of days."

Although U.S., British and French military ships loaded with aid were just off its coastline, Myanmar has refused to let them join in relief efforts.

Malloch-Brown said Britain and Myanmar had reached a kind of consensus over the direction of the aid operation under which Asian countries such as India, China, Thailand and Indonesia would take the lead in conjunction with the U.N.

"There is now a leadership which the Burmese can accept and we can work through to deliver our assistance," he said.




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