Myanmar mourns cyclone victims


Myanmar began three days of mourning on Tuesday for 133,000 people dead or missing in its cyclone, but barely anyone seemed to notice and most of the two million survivors were still desperate for help.

In one of the first official displays of grief since the cyclone pummelled swathes of this impoverished country 18 days ago, national flags in front of Yangon's City Hall fluttered at half mast in the light morning rain.

But there was no public ceremony nor moment of silence, and most people in Yangon appeared completely unaware of the mourning period.

"We didn't know about this news. How are we meant to show our grief for storm victims?" said Mya Mya, a 43-year-old flower seller who is sheltering in a public school after the storm destroyed her home.

Like most cyclone survivors still waiting for food, shelter and medicine, Mya Mya said she had yet to receive any emergency relief from the military government.

Global pressure is mounting on the regime to do more for the storm victims, and Myanmar agreed at regional talks on Monday in Singapore to allow neighbouring countries to coordinate an international relief effort.

Separately, the United Nations' top aid official John Holmes met on Tuesday with Myanmar's Prime Minister Thein Sein, a day after he toured parts of the Irrawaddy Delta where entire villages were washed away.

But doubts emerged over how effective any relief effort would be, since -- despite the compromise with ASEAN -- the junta has refused to allow in foreign aid workers in anything like the numbers needed, despite warnings that people could die without help.

Human Rights Watch warned that the aid effort led by ASEAN (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations) still fell well short of the operation needed to address victims' urgent needs.

"Governments and aid agencies should not delude themselves into thinking otherwise," said Brad Adams, the group's Asia director.

Meanwhile, the World Bank's managing director, Juan Jose Daboub, said that because the junta has not been repaying its loans, the global lender "cannot legally provide any resources to Myanmar."

"At this time we are not in a position of providing resources to Myanmar," he told reporters in Singapore.

The United Nations estimates that only 500,000 of the 2.4 million affected by the storm are currently receiving aid.

It has embarked on a top-level diplomatic effort to open the door to more aid, especially into the hardest-hit southern delta region, and Holmes' visit is part of that push.

UN chief Ban Ki-moon, who had earlier failed to get reclusive junta leader Than Shwe even to take his telephone calls, was set to visit the hardest-hit regions of Myanmar on Thursday ahead of weekend fund-raising talks in Yangon.

Analysts believe the ASEAN deal, which will also see teams of Asian medics from nine countries travel to Myanmar, was a face-saving way for the junta to allow in relief without being seen to cave in to Western pressure.

A Western diplomat in Yangon said the regime was taking its cue from close ally China, which is also dealing with disaster after an earthquake killed at least 34,000 people in the southwest.

"It is possible that there was Chinese pressure," the diplomat said.

"The fact that the junta has declared three days of mourning now, whereas the cyclone took place more than two weeks ago, is very significant."

China, for its part, began three days of mourning for its quake victims on Monday, exactly one week after the tragedy, using it as a chance to bring the nation together.

Than Shwe spent a second consecutive day on Monday touring the disaster zone, venturing into the hardest-hit regions of the delta for the first time, state television reported.

On Tuesday he announced on state media that the government would build new schools for children orphaned by the cyclone.

Until Sunday, the senior general had not made a public appearance or remark about the disaster.