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Tentative Signs of Progress: First German Aid Workers Let into Burma

Representatives from dozens of governments met in Rangoon on Sunday to discuss how to help the cyclone victims. They pledged more aid on condition that foreign aid workers are let into Burma. There are signs the Burmese rulers are granting access to aid agencies, including a German team that was let in on Sunday.

Burma's Irrawaddy Delta was hard hit by Cyclone Nargis.
DPA

Burma's Irrawaddy Delta was hard hit by Cyclone Nargis.

Germany's deputy foreign minister said international aid to Burma could bring about political change in the country after dozens of states pledged to increase help for the cyclone victims.

Gernot Erler, who represented Germany at Sunday's international donor conference in Rangoon, told German radio RBB-Inforadio Monday now that foreign aid workers were allowed to travel into Burma, help was guaranteed to reach the victims of cyclone Nargis. Erler on Sunday told German news agency DPA there had been a "break through" as foreign aid workers -- including a handful from Germany -- had been allowed into the devastated areas.

Dozens of governments met in Burma's capital, Rangoon, Sunday for a landmark aid conference during which more than $150 million was promised in help for cyclone victims. Most of the money will go to the UN's $201 million three-month appeal, 30 percent of which had already been raised before the meeting had started.

UN General Secretary Ban Ki-moon told the AP a turning point had been reached in getting Burma's military leaders to allow foreign workers unhindered access to the devastated areas. "I'm cautiously optimistic that this could be a turning point for Myanmar to be more flexible, more practical, and face the reality as it is on the ground."

During Sunday's conference some western donor countries said their aid was contingent on Burma's military rulers keeping their promise of letting in foreign aid workers and assessment teams. Speaking after the conference, British development minister Douglas Alexander said: "The Myanmar authorities must turn promises into action. The eyes of the world are watching."

During the conference Burma's prime minister, Thein Sein, thanked the delegates from over 50 countries and told them more aid was welcome, as long as it came from "genuine goodwill" and "provided that there are no strings attached nor politicization involved," Reuters reported. According to Burma's military junta, the country will need $11 billion for resettlement, reconstruction and rehabilitation -- although it is unclear how Burma's leaders came up with this figure.

Cyclone Nargis, which struck the south-east Asian country on May 2, has left 134,000 people dead or missing and another 2.4 million destitute. Burma's junta agreed on Friday to let in all foreign aid workers after previously refusing to allow a full-scale relief effort in the cyclone-hit areas. According to the UN, three weeks after cyclone Nargis struck Burma three in four of those who need help most have not yet received any.

But, there are now signs that this is changing. According to German news agency DPA, a group of German aid workers from the Federal Agency for Technical Relief (THW) were let into Burma on Sunday. The five-strong German team set up two water purification systems in Bogalay, which can produce 120,000 liters of drinking water a day.

Germany's deputy foreign minister Erler said letting in aid workers might have long-term political effects. Erler told RBB-Inforadio that the Burmese people, who have been cut off from the rest of the world, would get information from abroad through aid workers. "There are examples in the recent past, where such things also brought about political change," he added.

Despite international criticizm, Burma's military leaders held a referendum on the country's constitution last weekend, which critics say will cement the military's stranglehold on the country. Burmese state radio said Monday 92.5 percent of voters had approved the constitution, which was voted on in a referendum on May 10 and then last Saturday in the cyclone-hit areas of Rangoon and the Irrawaddy delta, the AP reported.

maw/dpa/ap/reuters

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