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May 26, 2008

Aid meeting makes little progress

The UN-Asean international pledging conference in Yangon is seen as achieving little in ending the Myanmar military junta's restriction on access for international aid workers to the cyclone-devastated areas.

The one-day conference, in which 52 nations and 25 international organisations took part, began on a note of optimism following promises by the junta that foreign aid workers could enter the most devastated areas from which they have been banned since the cyclone struck three weeks ago.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said after a meeting with the junta's paramount leader Than Shwe the general would allow "unhindered access" for international aid workers.

Myanmar Prime Minister Thein Sein, who chaired the meeting with UN chief Ban and Singapore Foreign Minister George Yeo, the current Asean chairman, suggested the rescue and relief phase was over and called for $10.7 billion in foreign funding for rehabilitation and reconstruction.

The donors however have yet to commit aids as they remain unsure whether the junta will  guarantee transparency and accountability. The amount of donations pledged at the conference is unknown but sources said they are far below the actual need.

Meanwhile international aid workers in Bangkok awaiting visa approval to travel to Myanmar were hit by an unexpected setback as the Myanmar embassy in Bangkok closed its visa application section on Monday after a fire broke out in one of the compound's buildings.

The fire outbreak came amidst growing confusion among the international aid community over whether Myanmar's ruling junta will follow up on commitments to grant more visas to aid workers seeking to enter the country to meet the desperate needs of some 2.4 million people affected by Cyclone Nargis, which slammed in to the country's central coast on May 2-3.

Myanmar junta boss Than Shwe assured United Nations Secretary Gernal Ban Ki-moon on Friday that the regime would allow "all" foreign aid workers unhindered access to the country and disaster zones. But there were few new details on visa procedures revealed at a pledging conference held in Rangoon on Sunday.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon led calls for Myanmar to make good on a pledge to let outsiders in. He called the event an "important exercise for building greater trust and cooperation" between Myanmar and the outside world, although participants said it was unclear how much money was actually pledged.

“There was a very clear message from the participants at the conference that they want to see the promises that have been made translated into reality,” said John Holmes, the UN's top emergency relief official.

Myanmar’s Prime Minister Thein Sein, who co-chaired the meeting, said Myanmar would accept foreign workers, but appeared to link their admission with rebuilding work in particular.

"For those groups who are interested in rehabilitation and reconstruction, my government is ready to accept them, in accordance with our priorities and the extent of work that needs to be done," he said.

More on Myanmar

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