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Agencies Wait for Burma's Government to Allow Relief Workers Into Country

Burma's assurances that it will allow in international relief workers are being put to the test as aid agencies await visas for workers seeking to help victims of Cyclone Nargis. Skeptics are questioning whether Burma's military leaders will allow in a substantial number of foreign relief workers three weeks after the storm hit. At least 134,000 people are dead or missing from the storm. VOA's Luis Ramirez reports from our Southeast Asia bureau in Bangkok.

More than three weeks after the cyclone hit Burma's Irawaddy Delta, the United Nations says three out of four victims have yet to receive any form of relief assistance. More than two million are suffering from lack of clean water, shelter, or medical care.

Armed with a promise from Burmese generals that they will allow international relief crews access, a number of aid workers headed into the hard-hit areas of the delta on Monday.

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who traveled to Burma over the last few days, received assurances from the Burmese leadership that they would allow relief workers to enter the country, regardless of nationality. Mr. Ban said he saw the statement as a breakthrough in building trust between the reclusive generals and the international community. He said he hoped the Burmese junta would keep its word.

Skeptics on Monday expressed doubts. Bertil Lintner, an author in the Thai city of Chiang Mai who has written extensively on the history of the Burmese military leadership, says it is impossible to tell at this stage whether the generals' statements to Mr. Ban amount to a meaningful concession.

"The Burmese government hasn't promised to do anything, not anything substantial. This week will be the test," said Lintner. "Will they allow more workers in? Who will they be and where will they be permitted to go? So far, it's nothing more than just an empty promise."

The Burmese government's announcement to the U.N. Secretary General came as members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and the United Nations attended a donors' conference in Rangoon that raised $100 million in pledges on Sunday.

At the conference, Burmese Prime Minister General Thein Sein said his government welcomes more aid as long as it comes without "strings attached" and without "politicization." Officials said they consider the relief phase to be over and are now concentrating on rebuilding. They said they need $11 billion for reconstruction.

Donor nations said they expect to see transparency in the Burmese government's relief efforts before they pledge any more money. Lintner and other skeptics say that until the generals actually allow the relief workers and assessment teams in, their motives will be in doubt.

"They will get lots of foreign aid for what they call the reconstruction, which will be to rebuild the infrastructure and to rebuild the towns in the delta. It is also what they say they want. They don't want foreigners to come and actually help the victims of the cyclone," added Lintner. "In that sense, they haven't changed at all. They probably realize that, 'yes, we can get money from the international community if we make something that may appear as a concession."

In Bangkok, where relief workers have been waiting for weeks, the Burmese embassy did not appear to be issuing visas on Monday. The embassy was forced to close temporarily after a fire broke out in the main building. Thai officials say it was apparently caused by faulty electrical wiring.