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May 19, 2008 (AFP)‚ Burma agreed at an emergency regional meeting here Monday to let its Southeast Asian neighbours coordinate foreign assistance for cyclone victims, Singapore Foreign Minister George Yeo said.
The Burmese government estimates losses from the disaster at more than 10 billion US dollars, Yeo told journalists after meeting counterparts from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, including Burma’s Nyan Win.
The 10-member ASEAN held the emergency meeting in Singapore, trying to convince its most difficult member to bow to international pressure and allow a wider relief effort.
But the bloc, which holds to the principle of non-interference in the affairs of member states, has repeatedly failed to wield much influence over the junta.
Thai Foreign Minister Noppadon Pattama said his Burmese counterpart Nyan Win was expected to propose a conference of donors on Thursday or Friday in Burma’s main city, Rangoon, but that the UN wanted it in Thailand.
"We have to listen to Myanmar’s opinion first," Noppadon said.
The emergency meeting came as the UN’s top aid official got a first-hand look at the cyclone disaster zone in Burma on Monday.
The United Nations said 2.4 million people were still critically short of aid 17 days after the tragedy struck, and relief agencies warned that the most vulnerable survivors will start dying soon unless they get the aid they need.
UN relief coordinator John Holmes delivered a letter to the isolationist junta from UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.
Ban himself was to visit the country later in the week, after failing to get junta leader Than Shwe to even take his phone calls in the aftermath of a disaster that has left at least 133,000 people dead or missing.
A UN spokesman in Burma said Holmes visited the disaster area earlier in the day but gave no details about his trip.
Whether through fears of being weakened or stubborn insistence on going it alone, Burma has refused to admit enough foreign experts to oversee the aid operation — and there are fears time has almost run out for some victims.
The United Nations said only a fraction of the emergency supplies needed were getting through to people in the Irrawaddy delta, where whole villages were swept away when Cyclone Nargis hit on 2-3 May.
"This is not of the quantity or frequency required to meet the needs of the affected populations," it said in its daily update, adding that hungry survivors were migrating out of their villages in search of food.
"The need is still overwhelming the actual relief response," Chris Webster, a spokesman for aid group World Vision, said in neighbouring Thailand.
"There’s a huge challenge in the hands of the aid workers and we don’t have all the people we need (in Myanmar)."
Among other delays, Burma has not yet granted visas to dozens of disaster relief specialists — while US and French ships are in the waters close to the country, loaded with aid but without clearance to come in to port.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa and French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner have both raised the possibility that the junta has committed crimes against humanity in its handling of the catastrophe.
Tutu said Friday that the regime had "effectively declared war on its own population."
The delta region has been all but closed off to reporters and most other foreigners, making it impossible to get an up-to-date independent picture of the situation on the ground.
But people who have slipped through have said the situation is almost unbearable — hungry people crouching in leaky huts, stinking corpses rotting by the roadside, and most people still without any government aid.
The military, which has held an iron grip on power here since 1962, has long had difficult relations with the Western world , Burma has been under US and EU sanctions for years — and is suspicious of its motives.
It has regularly rejected outside pressure to free detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who won elections in 1990 by a landslide but was never allowed to govern, or move quickly to restore democracy.
Just a week after the cyclone, the regime held a national referendum on a new constitution that would bar Aung San Suu Kyi from ever holding office. It said there was 99 percent turnout, and that 92.4 percent supported the charter.
Round two of the vote, in the storm-affected areas, will be held on Saturday despite the devastation. One Rangoon resident told AFP authorities went around Sunday with loud-hailers, reminding people to vote.