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Junta's credibility gap keeps aid from cyclone victims

As the first Asean-UN International Pledging Conference approaches this Sunday, serious questions have been raised about whether the Burmese junta has enough credibility and accountability to handle the large amount of aid given to it by international donors.

Worst of all, the junta's leaders have told Asean Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan that the rescue and relief phase of operations there has been completed. At a press conference yesterday, Surin asked Burmese authorities to provide solid facts to fill the current discrepancy gap between the figures being given by Rangoon and those of credible international organisations.

Burmese authorities put the death toll at 77,000, with 55,000 missing or presumed dead, while the international community puts the latter number at 133,000.

"The government must provide facts and data and [reveal] how it got these numbers," Surin said adding that it is a question of creditability and trust. Without this, it would be difficult to convince international donors to pledge sufficient funds. "If they do, they will come up with lots of conditions," he said.

Since the pledging conference is only two days away, the onus is on the junta to assure international donors of its plan of action in terms of how the rehabilitation and recovery effort will be carried out. In an improbable coincidence, the planned conference also falls on the same day that Aung San Suu Kyi's house arrest should legally have come to an end, given the junta's own provisions when it extended her detention last year.

At the moment, access to affected areas in the Irrawaddy delta is still limited, making detailed assessment impossible. The Asean Emergency Rapid Assessment Team complained in its report that they could not visit the areas of their choosing. Such questions concerning credibility must be addressed quickly by Burmese authorities, otherwise they will have an impact on Sunday's conference.

At the Asean meeting in Singapore last week, Burmese Foreign Minister Nyan Win put damages from the disaster at US$11 billion (Bt350 billion). Surin said such a huge amount would come with internationally accepted standards of financial governance and accountability. He said no donors would provide assistance if the junta fails to establish mechanisms that ensure transparency.

Surin was confident that the junta would come up with the details of its recovery plans, especially when it vehemently insisted that the rescue and relief phase was over. It is also clear from the press conference that Burma would not allow independent aid distribution without government supervision.

Asean has established a 22-member task force to coordinate international aid for the cyclones. Surin said a small core group has been set up with three representatives -one each from Asean, Burma and international organisations. This tripartite group will facilitate the flow of assistance and future recovery and planning

The Asean-led task force, according to Surin, does not have the mandate to implement recovery plans, which are directly under the junta's purview. The task force is a diplomatic mechanism to muster international support to come under the Asean umbrella in order to help save lives.

Efforts to save lives over the next few weeks will be crucial as more people are expected to die from lack of water, clean sanitation and medical care. Burma agreed last week to accept a team of 30 doctors from Asean countries for medical assistance. Already, there is a high level of frustration among Asean diplomats with Burma's insistence that the rescue and relief phase is now over. In the long run, more people will die and it will take several years to find out just how many.

To facilitate future rehabilitation efforts inside Burma, Thailand has proposed that Don Muang Airport serve as the staging area for international assistance. In the meeting between UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Foreign Minister Noppadon Pattama on Wednesday, Ban welcomed Thailand's offer. Earlier, Ban expressed his wish to have the pledging conference held in Bangkok. Burma said that, as the concerned country, it should host the conference instead.

The inaugural flight carrying food and medical supplies is scheduled to leave Don Muang tomorrow afternoon in a ceremony attended by Ban, Surin and Noppadon as well as diplomatic corps and representatives from international relief organisations.

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