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ASEAN, Donor Countries Seeking Guarantees From Burma on Cyclone Recovery Aid

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations says countries donating to Burma's cyclone recovery efforts are seeking re-assurances of cooperation from Burmese authorities. Donor nations and aid groups are worried Burma may reduce access to the country after the military-ruled government eliminated a mechanism for fast-track visa processing for foreign aid workers.

Representatives from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations met with donor countries and international organizations Wednesday in Bangkok.

The group of more than thirty participants discussed aid efforts for Burma's recovery from last year's devastating cyclone Nargis.

After the meeting, ASEAN's Secretary-General, Surin Pitsuwan, told journalists they were concerned about the effectiveness of aid to Burma, also known as Myanmar. He said Burmese authorities are now requiring aid groups to go through slow, bureaucratic channels to operate in the isolated country.

"We would like to seek clarification and new assurance from the government of Myanmar that from now onward we will have full support, full access, and we will have full coordination in order to deliver our international assistance into Myanmar or into the delta," said Surin Pitsuwan.

Surin said delivery of aid was good for the first six months after the cyclone when the so-called tripartite core group was coordinating access. But after the emergency relief efforts turned to recovery plans, Burmese authorities eliminated that part of the group's coordinating role and the processing of foreign aid worker applications began to slow down.

Surin said donors also noted that Burma's prosecution of democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi was affecting donor sentiment.

"They certainly mentioned the fact that it has not helped the enthusiasm of their constituencies to engage more actively, more fully," said Surin Pitsuwan. "There might be some delay, there might be some reservation, that the issue is not separate from the deliberation and the consideration on further engagement."

However, Surin said donors did not make the release of the Nobel Peace Prize winner a condition for further aid.

Aung San Suu Kyi is now on trial in Burma and is expected to be sentenced to up to five years in prison. The trial is widely viewed as a sham designed to keep the democracy icon locked up.

ASEAN last month issued its strongest statement to date joining international calls for her release and criticizing Burma's military government.

ASEAN has traditionally taken a more subtle approach towards its troublesome member-state.

The regional grouping said this strategy helped it negotiate the successful delivery of cyclone relief aid to Burma. The military government had initially refused foreign help for several weeks, which critics say could have prevented numerous casualties.

About $300 million in relief aid has been sent to the Irrawaddy Delta so far, and agencies are seeking another $700 million for recovery efforts.

An estimated 140,000 people were killed and more than two million affected by the massive storm.