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Neighbors Tell Burma to Allow Aid Access to Cyclone Ravaged Area

The top official of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations has warned Burma it faces a test in allowing international donors access to areas of country still recovering from Cyclone Nargis. The warning came at a United Nations conference assessing the aid effort after Nargis.

Cyclone Nargis swept across Burma's Irrawaddy Delta in May 2008. It left 140,000 dead and more than two-million people displaced.

Buildings were destroyed, rice fields devastated, and thousands of farm animals were lost. The loss was estimated at close to $4-billion dollars.

Burma's military government faced international criticism for not allowing the global donor community access to the most devastated regions.

Eventually, Burma agreed to allow in aid through a tripartite core group with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and the United Nations.

UN-ASEAN partnership

ASEAN Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan said Monday that in the future, ASEAN and the U.N. must work together to respond quickly to regional disasters.

"We have agreed that next time around when disaster strikes on the landscape of ASEAN, we will go to the field together from the very beginning to do the rapid assessment of the need, of the damage, and of the necessary actions that would be required for us to help relieve the suffering of the victims," Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan said.

Surin spoke at a U.N. conference assessing the Nargis aid effort.

The conference comes as Burma prepares for elections in November. Human rights groups say the vote is a sham to extend military control, since the military has been allocated a quarter of the seats in the new parliament.

Thai newspapers have said that ahead of the election, Burma's military has claimed credit for much of the aid supplies and funds that came from overseas.

Burma faces critical test

Surin says Burma – also known as Myanmar – faces a critical test after the vote. The government must convince the world it will cooperate with donors.

"If this (test) Myanmar fails, then the world will certainly be very reluctant to continue to work and integrate Myanmar into the international community post elections, he add ed. "So it is extremely critical, extremely important."

Noeleen Heyzer is the executive secretary of the U.N. Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific. At the conference she said a faster response to Nargis "could have saved more lives and reduced the damage."

Heyzer also said national governments and aid agencies must work as partners in disasters.

"Leadership matters and therefore the internal governance of the country is critical in order to build trust," said Heyzer. " And trust was built in terms of moving the Nargis agenda forward in terms of the tripartite group. Partnership matters and accountability matters as well, and here the partnership of donors is critical.

U.N. officials say they received enough donations to help Burma right after Nargis hit, but that funding for long-term rebuilding and development has proven "a more difficult challenge."