YANGON (AFP) — UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on Thursday toured the Myanmar cyclone disaster area, as he began talks with the junta on opening up to a massive relief effort that could save countless lives.
The country's military leaders have shocked the world by refusing a full-scale emergency operation despite the scope of the destruction, and Ban said he would try to persuade them to welcome offers of help with open arms.
"The whole world is trying to help Myanmar," Ban said as he visited a camp of survivors from the May 2-3 storm, which has left around 134,000 people dead or missing and another 2.5 million people in need of immediate aid.
"Don't lose your hope," he told one woman in the devastated Irrawaddy Delta, the rice bowl region which bore the brunt of the worst natural disaster in the country's history. "The United Nations is here to help you."
Ban said there were recent signs of "flexibility" from the regime, which in the past few days has consented to UN helicopters flying to remote villages to help speed up a relief effort criticised by the international community.
But the UN chief could not get the head of the junta, Senior General Than Shwe, to take his calls or answer his letters in the aftermath of the disaster, and the regime has a long history of thumbing its nose at world opinion.
Ban is to meet Than Shwe on Friday in the remote capital of Naypyidaw, hoping to stress the urgency of the crisis as well as the international fury that has led to allegations of crimes against humanity over the disaster.
The United Nations believes only 25 percent of those in immediate need of food, water, shelter and medicines have been reached by international aid three weeks after the disaster struck.
There are French and US navy vessels with relief supplies at sea nearby, but the junta has refused to allow them in. It has also blocked visas for many of the foreign disaster relief experts needed to oversee the aid operation.
"The ships are waiting, just waiting for permission," said Michael Turner, spokesman for the US embassy in neighbouring Thailand. "How long they'll be there is difficult to say."
The Myanmar government has allowed just one US government relief expert in, and his colleagues remain barred, a US official said Thursday.
William Berger, head of a US disaster assistance team, arrived in Yangon on Wednesday for a junta-supervised tour of the Irrawaddy Delta.
Aid groups warn that hunger and disease are stalking many of the survivors of the storm, and that the death toll could rise if they do not get assistance immediately.
But the country's strictly controlled state media have said reports that people are not getting enough aid are the work of "traitors," and suggested that the emergency phase of the operation is over.
The official New Light of Myanmar newspaper, a mouthpiece for the junta, said on Thursday: "Storm victims are not to trust the fabricated news made by destructive elements at home and abroad."
But AFP reporters who have been able to slip through the security cordon the regime has thrown up around the delta region have reported that many victims still have not received any aid from the government.
"I'm quite confident we will be able to overcome this tragedy. I've tried to bring a message of hope to your people," said Ban -- the first UN secretary general to visit the country in more than 40 years.
"At the same time, I hope your people and government can coordinate the flow of aid, so the aid work can be done in a more systematic and organised way."
The storm wiped out entire villages in the Irrawaddy Delta, but the country's main city of Yangon was also hit hard.
Poor access, logistical bottle-necks and other problems have beset the relief operation, in addition to a decision by the ruling generals to keep out most foreign disaster experts.
Meanwhile the regime is pressing ahead with its political agenda.
Just days after the storm, it held a first round of voting on a new constitution, which dissidents say will entrench military rule.
The junta now insists on holding a second round of voting in the referendum Saturday in towns and villages that were devastated by the cyclone.
The regime's main foe, Nobel peace prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, is under house arrest, and her detention is expected to be extended shortly.
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