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May 25, 2008

Donors discuss aid but doubts linger

Nations and aid groups met Sunday to discuss billions of dollars for cyclone-hit Myanmar, which is welcoming donations but baulking at foreign aid workers to supervise how and where the money is spent.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon is co-hosting the meeting, where Myanmar is expected to ask for $10.7 billion, just two days after announcing what could be a breakthrough deal with the military junta to allow in outside relief workers.

However there were doubts as to whether the ruling junta, which has a long history of not keeping its international promises, would actually allow access. Donors want to ensure aid actually gets to 2.4 million desperate survivors of Cyclone Nargis.

"I will make clear in unequivocal terms the responsibility of the Burmese regime to allow the unfettered access that the international community wants to see," Douglas Alexander, Britain's top international development official, was quoted as telling AFP.

The storm left 133,000 people dead or missing, and aid groups have warned that more people will die without urgent supplies of food, clean water, shelter and medicines. The European Union's top aid official has warned of a famine.

But the government has kept foreign aid workers waiting in neighbouring Thailand without visas, sealed off the Irrawaddy Delta disaster zone to outsiders, and called citizens who said they had not yet got emergency aid "traitors."

Entire villages in the delta were swept away in the storm, and reporters who have slipped past police roadblocks into the region say the situation is desperate, with countless thousands of victims short of food and other essentials.

Fields in the heart of the country's rice-growing region were left in ruins, and there are still corpses rotting in canals weeks after the storm hit. But the government insists the relief effort is finished and rebuilding can begin.

The UN's Ban said Friday he had won agreement from Junta’s boss Than Shwe to let in all foreign aid workers, with experience managing relief work in disaster areas, and give them access to the delta to make an assessment and oversee efforts.

But state media in the tightly controlled nation, run by the military for 46 years, have issued no confirmation of that agreement - while there are also concerns that money pledged and aid delivered will not go to those who need it.

"This regime is actually trying to use the human devastation caused by Cyclone Nargis as a cash cow," said Debbie Stothard of the Alternative Asean Network, an activist group on Southeast Asian affairs.

Her group is a response to Asean, the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which includes Myanmar and is the other co-host of the meeting in the main city Yangon.

The United Nations and Asean reportedly already have approval to supervise the relief operation, and will present the details of how that will work at Sunday's conference.

Myanmar has already given aid groups presentations to explain why it needs nearly $11 billion to repair thousands of houses, hospitals, schools and rice fields destroyed in the storm.

It has given unusually precise figures -- it said that the storm killed 136,804 water buffalo and 1,250,194 chickens -- but donor nations are expected to demand more access and oversight before cash is delivered.

The half-day conference is also being attended by dozens of governments and international relief organisations, including Myanmar's most powerful ally China.

Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi was representing Beijing, which is widely seen as the staunchest defender of the Myanmar generals who have enraged the world with their response to the May 2-3 disaster.

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