UN chief holds "constructive talks" in cyclone-hit Myanmar

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon held "constructive talks" with Myanmar's prime minister Thursday before inspecting areas devastated by Cyclone Nargis, which has left more than a million people in need of aid 20 days after the storm, reported dpa.

The UN secretary-general toured the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon before meeting with Prime Minister General Thein Sein for more than one hour.

Without providing details, the Secretary-General's spokeswoman, Michele Montas, said that the meeting was "very constructive."

In the afternoon Ban was scheduled to meet with the Myanmar Red Cross and other Myanmar ministers before flying by helicopter to inspect parts of the Irrawaddy delta, the area hardest hit by Cyclone Nargis on May 2-3.

At a press conference in Bangkok Wednesday, Ban said he was going to Myanmar "to see for myself the affected areas and to meet the people who are in need."

Almost three weeks after the cyclone hit Myanmar, an international disaster relief effort has only been able to reach about 25 per cent of the 2.5 million people affected by the storm, Ban noted.

According to Myanmar government estimates the cyclone left at least 133,000 dead or missing, ranking it as the worst natural calamity in the reclusive country's history.

The disaster has also brought in to the world spotlight Myanmar's rulers, a military dictatorship that has lorded over its people for the past 46 years, earning the country pariah status among Western democracies and proving an embarrassment for even its closest Asian allies.

The State Peace and Developemnt Council (SPDC), as the junta styles itself, has drawn international criticism for failing to facilitate international aid for its own people in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis, and for refusing to hand out more visas to foreign aid workers and allow those inside the country to work in the most affected areas such as the Irrawaddy delta.

On Friday, Ban is scheduled to head to the military's new capital of Naypyitaw, about 350 kilometres north of Yangon, to hold talks with junta head Senior General Than Shwe.

The UN chief said his priority for the trip is to "expedite all arrangements for facilitating the free movement of international relief aid and workers."

He will return to Bangkok Friday night in order to hold talks on Saturday with Thai Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej and other Thai ministers.

Thailand, which is Myanmar's eastern neighbour, has turned into the main logistical and organizational hub for the international relief effort currently underway.

While thanking the Thai authorities, Ban said on Wednesday that he wanted to set up forward logistical bases inside Myanmar as well, "in coordination with the government, to speed up the delivery of supplies and better coordinate our mutual assistance efforts."

The UN secretary-general will return to Yangon on Sunday to preside over a UN-ASEAN pledging conference for Myanmar, for the country's short-term and long-term needs.

On Monday, ASEAN (Association of South-East Asian Nations) agreed to act as a liaison between the international aid community and Myanmar's junta. The grouping includes Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. 

Myanmar Foreign Minister Nyan Win has estimated losses to Cyclone Nargis at more than 10 billion dollars.

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