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February 28, 2009

Myanmar Politics:
Junta pushes aside cyclone aid, focuses on elections

Military-ruled Myanmar has cut the timeframe for a post-cyclone recovery plan as the regime gears up for general elections in 2010, officials at a regional summit said on Friday.

A United Nations-Asean coordinating group said earlier this month the recovery from Cyclone Nargis, which left 140,000 people dead or missing and 2.4 million severely affected last May, would take three years and cost $700 million.

But the regime has only agreed to extend the group's work to the middle of 2010, Thai Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya told reporters after meeting his counterparts from the 10-member Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean).

"The reason for a one-year extension is that there will be a general election next year and they didn't want to make a decision for the next government," Kasit said.

The military, which has ruled the former Burma in various guises since 1962, has promised elections in 2010 as part of its seven-step "roadmap to democracy." Western governments have criticised the poll as a sham aimed at entrenching nearly 50 years of military rule.

It was not clear how Myanmar's decision would affect foreign aid groups working in the Irrawaddy Delta, where many people are still living in temporary shelters since the cyclone struck last May. Access to clean water also remains a challenge. One foreign aid worker in Yangon told Reuters he did not think his group would be kicked out of Myanmar in 2010.

But he said it could hurt fund-raising efforts for the coordinating group's Post-Nargis Recovery and Preparedness Plan (PONREPP) launched in Bangkok earlier this month.

The plan called for $700 million in aid over the next three years to improve nutrition, health and livelihoods in the delta. The global economic crisis is squeezing foreign donor governments, which have been reluctant to provide aid to Myanmar over its dismal human rights record.

A new report by health care activists on Friday accused the regime of blocking aid to the delta, forced relocations, and using forced labour in reconstruction projects. The report was based on interviews with 90 relief workers and cyclone survivors compiled by the US-based Center for Public Health and Human Rights and the Emergency Assistance Team, a group of aid workers based in Thailand.

It called on the UN Security Council and International Criminal Court to investigate the regime for rights abuses. "The charge of crimes against humanity is a very grave and serious one," Dr Chris Beyrer, director of the US center at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, told a news conference in Bangkok.

"But in the context of a relief effort like this, where you have evidence of forced labour, forced relocation and confiscation of relief aid, these are documented violations that need to be taken seriously," he said.
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