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'Turning point in tackling cyclone crisis'
Sim Chi Yin
Mon, May 26, 2008
The Straits Times
YANGON - A TURNING point may have been reached in tackling Myanmar's cyclone crisis, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon said yesterday, as millions of dollars were pledged at an international conference for 2.4 million survivors of Cyclone Nargis.

The day-long landmark meeting of more than 50 countries - three weeks after torrid storms left more than 134,000 people dead or missing - started on that optimistic note and with a minute's silence for victims.

Mr Ban said that things were looking up, given a promise he obtained from junta chief Than Shwe last Friday that foreign aid workers would be allowed into the worst-hit areas - where they had been banned since the cyclone struck on May 3.

'I hope this marks a turning point in tackling the challenges facing this country,' Mr Ban told the 500 or so delegates at the conference held in a Yangon hotel.

In recent days, the Myanmar government 'appears to be moving to implement' what they had promised, he said, noting that some international aid workers had already moved into the hard-hit areas 'without problem'. But he stressed that foreign aid and medical teams must have 'unhindered access'.

Myanmar's Prime Minister Thein Sein said his government would co-operate if countries or aid groups wanted to visit stricken areas, after weeks of refusing assistance.

Mr Thein Sein, who sat on stage with Mr Ban in a sarong-like traditional longyi instead of his military uniform, thanked the delegates for the help so far and said international aid was welcome provided 'there are no strings attached nor politicisation involved'.

He also stressed that only civilian vessels could take part in the relief work.

With only an estimated one-quarter of the 2.4 million victims having received help, there is little time to lose, noted Mr George Yeo, Foreign Affairs Minister of Singapore, the current chair of Asean, which co-organised the conference with the UN.

UN top emergency relief official John Holmes warned that much time has been lost and there is a 'potential second wave of deaths' because many victims have not been reached. People in the hardest-hit Irrawaddy Delta areas are still awaiting help, he said.

Delegates largely welcomed the leadership roles of Asean and the UN, but many were still cautious about the degree to which the junta would play ball.

With sums still being tabulated at press time, yesterday's conference saw modest fresh pledges of more than US$50 million (S$68 million). Countries like the United States and Ireland said they would commit more aid only if they could first do a thorough assessment of the needs on the ground.

Singapore pledged US$5 million, having already delivered US$200,000 in kind.

An Asean-led taskforce will now coordinate the relief effort and offer accountability for funds pledged. It will work through a nine-member team with representatives from the regional grouping, the UN and the Myanmar government, including PM Thein Sein himself.

In his closing remarks, Mr Yeo, who chaired the pledging session, said: 'There's still lots of work to be done. There have been calls for greater access to information, for roadblocks to be cleared. I hope this will be done step by step in the coming days, weeks and months.'

He noted: 'If there is assurance of better damage assessment and greater access, many countries here have stated that they will give more... The problem is not one of generosity, the problem is one of establishing greater trust between Myanmar and the world community.'

Speaking to Singapore reporters after the meeting, Mr Yeo said the conference went 'better than expected'.

The Myanmar government had agreed to be more open, he said. 'A week ago, we could not have envisaged this degree of opening up.'

simcy@sph.com.sg

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