Burma approves all pending visas for UN aid workers

May 29, 2008 (AP), Burma’s isolationist regime has approved all pending visas for United Nations relief workers to enter the country, the UN said on Thursday, nearly a month after a cyclone left more than 2 million people in need of aid.

Greater numbers of foreign aid staffers also were entering the Irrawaddy delta, a low-lying region which took the brunt of the 2-3 May cyclone, the UN said in a statement.

"I went to some areas where no international relief personnel had been to, and the priorities for these people are food and shelter. We’re going to be working very hard to deliver these items to them," Tony Banbury, regional head of the UN World Food Programme, told AP Television News on Thursday.

Banbury, flying in a helicopter, visited a number of villages cut off from the rest of the world on a tour of the delta on Tuesday.

The storm left an estimated 2.4 million people in desperate need of food, shelter and medical care, according to the UN. The government says the cyclone killed 78,000 people and left 56,000 missing.

Burma’s leaders are leery of foreign aid workers and international agencies, worrying they could weakened the junta’s grip on power. The generals also don’t want their people to see aid coming directly from countries like the US that the junta has long treated as a hostile power.

They only allowed foreign aid workers in after UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon met with junta leader senior general Than Shwe last weekend.

Since then the regime appears to have kept its promise to allow humanitarian workers from all countries into the country and allow them access to the delta.

The UN statement said the last 45 pending visas had been granted to its staffers, while Save the Children, Doctors Without Borders and the UN Children’s Fund have sent more than 14 workers into the delta in recent days.

While garnering some praise for opening up to the international aid community, global powers have voiced outrage at a decision by the government to extend the detention of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi just days after donors pledged large sums of money to help the cyclone victims.

Several countries, including the United States, Britain and France, issued biting statements about the regime’s order to keep the Nobel peace laureate under house arrest for a sixth year.

"This measure testifies to the junta’s absence of will to cooperate with the international community," French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner said in a statement.

He called on Burma’s government to "free without delay" Aung San Suu Kyi and other political prisoners and opposition members being held. Aung San Suu Kyi has been held for more than 12 of the past 18 years, becoming a symbol of the junta’s intolerance of dissent.

Many nations critical of Burma’s abuses had put politics aside to help survivors of Cyclone Nargis. Representatives from 50 nations pledged up to $150 million Sunday, while remaining quiet about Aung San Suu Kyi’s plight.

But some of those countries expressed frustration on Wednesday, a day after the junta extended Aung San Suu Kyi’s detention amid the international community’s outpouring of goodwill.

"Given the terrible human tragedy that has unfolded in Burma, the Australian government has recently tempered its remarks so far as the Burmese military regime has been concerned," said Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith. "But this particular matter cannot go without comment."

Smith expressed "regret" over Aung San Suu Kyi’s extended detention.

In Washington, President Bush said on Tuesday he was "deeply troubled" by the detention order, but stressed the US would continue to provide cyclone aid. He called on the regime to free all political prisoners and begin genuine dialogue with Aung San Suu Kyi that would lead to a transition to democracy.

Her National League for Democracy party denounced the extension of house arrest as illegal, saying it would launch an appeal. Party spokesman Nyan Win said the government should also hold a public hearing on the case.

Under Burmese law, people deemed security threats can be detained for a maximum of five years without trial. The regime has not officially announced its decision to extend Aung San Suu Kyi’s detention or explain why it is violating its own law. An official confirmed the extension, but insisted on not being quoted by name because he was not authorised to speak to the media.

Foreign secretary David Miliband of Britain said he was "saddened, if not surprised" by the decision.

"That she will spend her 63rd birthday next month in total isolation is an indictment of the regime," he said in a statement.

Indonesian Foreign Minister Hasan Wirayuda said Aung San Suu Kyi’s continued detention went against the "goodwill of the international community" in its efforts to aid Burma in its moment of need.

While the UN secretary-general expressed regret over Aung San Suu Kyi’s continued arrest, he praised "a new spirit of cooperation" between the junta and the international community in the aid effort. The UN said some of its foreign staffers had begun moving into the delta and emergency food supplies were being ferried in on its helicopters.

World Vision said it received permission to send two teams, including five international staffers, into the Irrawaddy delta on Thursday. Japan planned to send a medical team to the delta on Thursday, foreign minister Masahiko Komura said.

The French warship Mistral arrived in neighboring Thailand on Wednesday to unload 1,000 tons of humanitarian supplies that will be transported into Burma by the UN The junta refuses to allow US, French and British warships to deliver emergency supplies in Burma.

Navy Admiral Timothy Keating, chief of the US Pacific Command, said the Navy would probably withdraw its vessels within days, unless the government allows it to unload their supplies.

The admiral said it was not too late for the Navy to contribute to the relief effort. He described the sailors and Marines aboard the ships as "desperate" to provide help.

The junta has allowed 70 flights by US Air Force C-130s to bring in water and other relief supplies from a base in Thailand, Keating said.

The regime considers its biggest threat to be Aung San Suu Kyi, daughter of the country’s martyred independence leader, general Aung San. She was awarded her Nobel prize in 1991 for her nonviolent attempts at promoting democracy and is widely popular.

Her National League for Democracy won elections in 1990, but the military refused to accept the results and has crackdown on its activists since then. But the party remains country’s largest legal opposition group and has the support of millions of citizens.

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