Myanmar on Sunday welcomed all international aid for the victims of Cyclone Nargis, which slammed into Myanmar three weeks ago leaving 133,000 dead or missing, as long as there were "no strings attached."
"We will warmly welcome any assistance and aid which are provided with genuine good will from any country or organization providing that there are no strings attached, nor politicisation involved," Myanmar Prime Minister General Thein Sein told a pledging conference being held in Yangon in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis.
The conference has attracted representatives from about 45 countries, United Nations agencies, ministers from the 10 members of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN), the Red Cross movement and at least five non-governmental organizations, UN sources said.
A key issue at the conference is whether Myanmar's reclusive and notoriously paranoid junta will allow greater access to the country and the Irrawaddy delta to foreign aid workers, who have been outraged by the government's restriction on their movements that have impeding aid supplies to victims of the cyclone.
"Expert and experienced international relief workers, in addition to the medical teams from neighbouring countries, must have unhindered access to the areas hardest hit by the disaster," said UN chief Ban Ki-moon in his opening remarks to the conference.
He added, "Whatever is needed to build an effective aid and logistics pipeline must be quickly put in place and be well-coordinated, both with Myanmar authorities and international aid agencies."
The conference, co-chaired by UN humanitarian affairs chief John Holmes and ASEAN Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan, aims at getting donor countries to open their chequebooks for disaster relief for Cyclone Nargis that swept across Myanmar's central coast on May 2-3, leaving 133,000 people dead or missing, and another 2.4 million desperately in need of food, water, shelter and medicine.
More than three weeks after the catastrophe, international aid has reached only 25 percent of the affected people, many of whom have been stranded without access to supplies in remote regions of the Irrawaddy delta.
Myanmar's reclusive regime has insisted that the relief phase of the disaster is over, and is seeking to raise $10.7 billion in pledges for reconstruction, rehabilitation and resettlement projects, especially in the Irrawaddy delta that was hardest hot by the storm.
Potential donors at Sunday's conference were eager to hear the government's assessment of the catastrophe.
"We still don't have a clear picture," said Hanke Veit, regional director for the European Commission Humanitarian Aid Office. "We are not aware of the extent of the government's assistance to the survivors."
Myanmar's ruling junta has come under a harsh international criticism for failing to facilitate a multi-million dollar disaster relief effort for their own people by slowing logistics and preventing foreign workers from entering the country or the delta.
UN chief Ban received an assurance from Myanmar junta head Senior General Than Shwe Friday that visas and access would be allowed for all foreign experts, but donors will want guarantees and further details on Sunday.
"I'm sure that they will keep their commitment," Ban said Saturday in Bangkok. He flew in to Yangon Sunday morning to open the conference.
But donors want to the know the exact details for procedures allowing access, which they hope will be forthcoming at the conference Sunday.
The conference will be a diplomatic test for ASEAN, which has set up a task force to ease the implementation of the aid flow with Myanmar's paranoid generals. Myanmar joined ASEAN in 1997.
"ASEAN is providing the diplomatic architecture," said Surin at a recent press conference. "What we bring to the table is a degree of confidence, a degree of comfort."
ASEAN will need to persuade Myanmar's junta to guarantee free assess for foreign experts to the cyclone-hit areas and assurances that pledges reach the people in need.
"This is make or break for ASEAN," said Sarah Ireland, regional director for Oxfam.
The "ASEAN formula," which includes setting up a task force with 22 participants from the 10 ASEAN members, including one political appointee and one relief expert from each country and headed by Surin and his own disaster expert, is a unique solution to Myanmar's unique challenges.
"There has never been this kind of setup before so we will like to understand exactly how it will work," said Veit.