Burma aid: Conference pledges millions of pounds

Burma aid: Conference pledges millions of pounds

The UN chief, Ban Ki-moon, said today he hoped Burma had reached “a turning point” in getting help to its cyclone survivors after an international aid conference pledged million of pounds in assistance.

The meeting came as supporters of the democratically elected leader of Burma, Aung San Suu Kyi, have been speculating that the ruling junta is planning an easing of her house arrest conditions or even a release, as part of its concessions to huge international pressure.

Three weeks after Cyclone Nargis swept through Burma killing an estimated 134,000 people and leaving millions homeless, Ban struck a hopeful note at the start of the one-day meeting in the Burmese capital, Rangoon, attended by representatives from more than 50 nations.

“I hope this marks a turning point in tackling the challenges facing this country,” he told the delegates after a minute of silence for the dead.

The junta has said foreign aid workers can enter the most devastated areas of the country from which they have been banned since the cyclone. However, Ban stressed today that the aid teams must have “unhindered access”.

Until now Burma has blocked significant amounts of aid and refused visas to foreign specialists, apparently afraid their presence could loosen the regime’s 46-year grip on power.

The junta’s leader, Thein Sein – dressed in civilian clothes rather than his usual general’s uniform – told the conference that international aid “with no strings attached” was welcome, but that only civilian ships were welcome.

Warships from the UK, US and France, loaded with humanitarian supplies, have been waiting off Burma’s coast. Last week, Burma’s state run media said they would not be allowed into the country due to supposed fears of a US invasion to snatch the country’s oil supplies.

Ban said the relief operation to assist those left homeless, particularly in the devastated Irrawaddy delta region, would last at least six months.

“There is good reason to hope that aid to the worst affected areas of Myanmar will increase significantly in the coming days. These needs must be funded, immediately,” he said.

The US representative, deputy assistant secretary of state Scot Marciel, said Washington was prepared to offer much more than the £10m already donated, but on the condition that international disaster experts are allowed to assess conditions in affected areas.

Burmese online publications have carried unconfirmed reports that Aung San Suu Kyi’s release is imminent, albeit with tight conditions.

The detention order that confined her to a fifth consecutive year of incarceration expired last night.

Nyan Win, a spokesman for the Nobel Peace Prize winner’s National League of Democracy, said today there was “no sign at all” as to whether she might be released, with no decision expected before tomorrow.

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