Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has announced that Myanmar’s Senior General Than Shwe has agreed to allow international aid workers, regardless of their nationality, into the areas worst affected by Cyclone Nargis after the two men held talks today.
Speaking to the press after the discussions, held in the country’s new capital Naypyidaw, Mr. Ban reported that he had held a “good meeting” with the Senior General.
“He has taken quite a flexible position on an issue that, until now, has been an obstacle to organizing coordinated and fully effective international aid and assistance operations,” Mr. Ban said. “He has also agreed that [the] visa issue will be speeded up.”
The Secretary-General said the Senior General had agreed that the main airport at Yangon, Myanmar’s most populous city, can be used as a logistics hub for international aid so that relief can be distributed more quickly to those in need. Aid can also be delivered to the country via civilian ships and small boats.
Mr. Ban said this commitment by Myanmar was “quite a breakthrough” and that “substantive progress was made on all critical issues at hand regarding humanitarian assistance,” according to his spokesperson.
“I hope all these agreements can produce results quickly. Implementation will be the key. Finally, we have agreed on the kind of effective coordination and consulting mechanisms we need,” he added.
The Secretary-General arrived yesterday in Myanmar, where Cyclone Nargis has left up to 2.4 million people in need of humanitarian assistance. The UN estimates that more than 100,000 people may have been killed since the storm struck on 2 May.
Yesterday Mr. Ban toured some of the worst affected areas in the Irrawaddy delta and spoke with families who had been forced to leave their homes.
“I am humbled – humbled by the scale of this natural disaster, the worst your country has ever experienced, and humbled by the courage and the resilience of the Myanmar people.”
Mr. Ban added that he had heard many tragic stories. “At a refugee camp, villagers told me of the loss of their families, their loved ones, everything they owned. But I also saw homes – and lives – being rebuilt.”
Saying he was encouraged by his meeting with Myanmar’s leadership, the Secretary-General said: “From all I have seen, the Government, with help from the international community, have put in place a functioning relief programme. But I told them that more needs to be done. Their efforts need to be reinforced, quickly, by international experts with tested experience in handling emergencies.”
Tomorrow Mr. Ban is due to attend an inaugural relief flight from the new UN staging areas in Don Mueang, Thailand. On Sunday he will return to Myanmar’s largest city Yangon for a pledging conference to raise funds for the disaster. “Our goal will be to focus on the immediate relief efforts, and also to look at the recovery phase which will have to start in parallel,” he said. So far 45 countries and regional bodies have signed up to attend the conference and the World Bank will also be represented.
UN agencies, including the World Food Programme (WFP), the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), have been mounting a major relief effort for victims of the severe storms, bringing in shelter, tents, food and medical supplies, though they say many people have still not been reached with aid.
WFP has now distributed almost 2,500 tons of food to nearly 450,000 people and has secured the Government’s permission to purchase 20,000 tons of food, mainly rice, inside the country.
The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance (OCHA) says that 130 aid flights have arrived in Yangon so far, including 22 from the UN. OCHA is also trying to obtain more boats to reach many of the small islands scattered through the delta area.
The World Health Organization (WHO) today issued a warning that monsoon rains in Myanmar were increasing the risks of an outbreak of disease. WHO says it is working with the Government to set up a surveillance system to monitor possible outbreaks.
Meanwhile, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) warned that hundreds of thousands of people in the remote areas of the Irrawaddy delta still do not have sufficient food to eat.