Burma eases foreign aid restrictions

Burma agreed on Monday to accept foreign medical workers from neighbouring countries, two weeks after Cyclone Nargis devastated the country and killed tens of thousands of people.
Child survivors of Cyclone Nargis cover their heads from the rain with empty aluminum plates as they wait for a plate of rice, a spoonful of curry and a potato. ((Associated Press))
Burma on Monday agreed to accept foreign medical workers from neighbouring countries, two weeks after Cyclone Nargis devastated the country and killed tens of thousands of people.

The announcement came following an emergency meeting of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Singapore. Burma's foreign minister attended the meeting of the 10-member bloc.

"We will establish a mechanism so that aid from all over the world can flow into Myanmar [Burma]," Singapore Foreign Minister George Yeo told reporters.

Yeo said 30-member medical teams from ASEAN countries would be allowed free access throughout Burma, which is tightly controlled by a secretive military government, or junta. Teams from western countries could be granted controlled access, he said.

Rescue workers from some ASEAN nations are already working in Burma.

Details of a proposed May 25 United Nations donor conference in Burma's capital, Rangoon, are being worked out, according to a joint statement issued by the foreign ministers.

UN head to visit Burma

At least 130,000 are dead or missing following the May 2 cyclone, and an estimated 2.5 million people have been severely affected, struggling for food, shelter and clean water.

The junta has come under fierce international criticism for refusing an outpouring of aid offers while its own people struggled to survive.
Survivors of Cyclone Nargis rush to be first in line to receive goods from a local donor at a monastery outside the capital of Rangoon on Monday. ((Associated Press))

Burma's government on Monday announced a three-day mourning period for the victims would begin on Tuesday. The decision came as China started a three-day mourning period for the more than 34,000 people killed in an earthquake in central China last week.

On Sunday, the junta's reclusive leader, Than Shwe, was shown on state television touring hard-hit parts of Rangoon.

In another surprising move Monday, top UN officials are being allowed to visit Burma's hard-hit Irrawaddy delta region.

John Holmes, the UN undersecretary general for humanitarian affairs, flew by helicopter to the delta before returning to Myanmar's largest city, Yangon, to meet with aid agencies, said reports.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who has regularly been rebuffed by Burma's rulers, is expected to tour the delta region later this week. Earlier, junta leader Senior Gen. Than Shwe refused to take telephone calls from Ban, and had not responded to two letters from him.

UN officials described conditions in the delta as "terrible," with hundreds of thousands of people suffering from hunger, disease and lack of shelter.

CBC reporter enters Burma

CBC reporter Stephen Puddicombe received a day pass to enter Burma on Monday, where he visited Myawaddy, a city of about 50,000 along the border with Thailand.

Burmese border guards confiscated Puddicombe's passport, and warned him that he must exit before a 5 p.m. local time curfew or spend the night in jail. Entry cost roughly $30, he said.

There's a heavy military and police presence in Myawaddy, said Puddicombe. A muddy lane is the only way to get into the city from Thailand. The city appears destitute, with burnt-out buildings lining the main road, he said. Small, rickety shacks on stilts line one shantytown section of the city.

People are hestitant to speak to foreigners, telling the CBC News crew they face jail time if they criticize the government. One Buddhist monk said in English: "You're a foreigner, we can't talk to you."

Truck, worker shortage

In the delta city of Laputta, hundreds of children covered their heads from the rain with empty aluminum plates as they lined up in front of a private donation centre on Sunday. They were given rice, a spoonful of curry and a potato.
Burmese Foreign Minister Nyan Win, left, speaks with his Singapore counterpart George Yeo, during a special ASEAN meeting Monday in Singapore. ((Wong Maye-E/Associated Press))

"Children only. Please. Children only," shouted a man who pushed back a crowd of adults. He explained they were feeding children and the elderly first because food supplies were limited and most adults could still fend for themselves.

The relief effort has been impeded by a lack of logistical support, said Ramesh Shrestha, head of the UN Children's Fund in Burma.

He said there are not enough trucks to transport supplies and a shortage of manpower to load and unload them.

"Many of those areas are still inaccessible because of the high water table, roads covered with fallen trees and bridges that are broken. The government has been clearing it, but it's still not completely done yet," he said.

With files from the Associated Press