Junta chief makes rare delta visit

Nov 3, 2009 (DVB), The head of Burma's ruling junta yesterday made a rare visit to the country's southern Irrawaddy delta 18 months after being the target of international outrage for his lax response to cyclone Nargis.

Senior General Than Shwe led a delegation to the delta area, visiting two towns that were hit hard by the cyclone in May last year which left some 140,000 people dead and an estimated 2.4 million destitute.

The government was heavily criticised by the international community for initially blocking overseas aid from being channeled into the delta. Foreign journalists were also barred from entering Burma.

The delegation visited a number of sites still under reconstruction, including cyclone shelters, a hospital and a town hall, according to the state-run New Light of Myanmar newspaper.

"The Senior General, [called] for rapid development of agricultural and fishing farms for improving the living conditions of local people [and] systematic rehabilitation of storm-hit villages," the newspaper said.

The visit came a day before the most senior-level United States delegation to visit Burma in 14 years arrived in Rangoon.

The US is to begin dialogue with the Burmese generals after years of sanctions and isolation. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton acknowledged in February that Washington's approach to Burma had failed to pressure the ruling junta to improve its human rights record.

Nowhere was the junta's fear of foreign meddling in the country more apparent than in the delta region following the cyclone.

US warships stationed off Burma's southern coast were blocked from delivering aid to survivors, while relief supplies carried by American military planes landing in the country were rejected.

State-run media in Burma had warned that the aid came "with strings attached" that were not "acceptable to" Burmese people.

Burma analyst Larry Jagan said however that the crisis was ongoing in the delta, and that "there is no question that it's being underreported".

"Part of [the govenrment's] concern is how this might impact on the election," he said. "They felt that they had done a very good job with running the aid programmes that the UN funded and that people would vote for them as a result."

But, he said, with a real lack of microcredit initiatives in the delta, the people there "are facing a pretty uncertain future in the next 12 months".

Reporting by Francis Wade

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