RANGOON, Burma – Burma's junta on Monday announced a three-day mourning period for cyclone victims, while the country's neighbors said they will establish a task force to handle foreign aid distribution.
The mourning period starting Tuesday comes as people remain angry at what appears to be an inadequate government effort following the storm that left at least 130,000 people dead or missing.
It also follows on a declaration by China of three days of mourning, starting Monday, for the more than 32,000 dead from its own disaster, an earthquake in Sichuan province last week.
In a major concession after being slammed for blocking foreign help, Burma, which has been renamed Myanmar by the junta, agreed to open its doors to medical teams from the 10 countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, Singapore Foreign Minister George Yeo told reporters.
At an emergency meeting of ASEAN foreign ministers in Singapore, which included Burmese Foreign Minister Nyan Win, officials agreed to set up an ASEAN-led task force for redistributing foreign aid.
"This mechanism will facilitate the effective distribution and utilization of assistance from the international community, including the expeditious and effective deployment of relief workers, especially health and medical personnel," Yeo told a news conference.
The bloc will work with the U.N. to hold an aid donor conference in Rangoon on May 25, Yeo said.
Burma's military regime, meanwhile, allowed the U.N. humanitarian chief into the devastated Irrawaddy delta for a brief tour Monday, a U.N. official said.
But the United Nations said its foreign staff were still barred from the delta and described conditions there as "terrible," with hundreds of thousands of cyclone victims suffering from hunger, disease and lack of shelter.
John Holmes, the U.N. undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs, flew by helicopter to the delta before returning to Burma's largest city, Rangoon, to meet with international aid agencies, said a U.N. official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak with the media.
Others, including U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, also will be allowed into the disaster zone this week.
An Asian diplomat said Burma has invited at least three representatives of several countries to tour the delta Friday. He spoke on condition of anonymity because the news has not been made public.
Ban is to travel to the delta after his scheduled arrival in the country Wednesday, U.N. spokeswoman Michele Montas said in New York.
Earlier, junta leader Senior Gen. Than Shwe had refused to take telephone calls from Ban and had not responded to two letters from him, Montas said. Holmes, who arrived in Rangoon on Sunday, was to deliver a third letter about how the U.N. can assist the government's immediate and long-term relief effort.
Amanda Pitt, a U.N. spokeswoman in Bangkok, said the world body was seeing "some progress in terms of pipelines starting to come through" but that the aid operation was still unsatisfactory.
"Clearly we're still not satisfied, which is why we keep saying we need to upscale the response. We're not satisfied with it, nobody is. We can see the situation is terrible," she said.
At least 78,000 people were killed in the May 2-3 storm and another 56,000 were missing. The situation remained grim in the Irrawaddy delta south of Rangoon.
In the delta city of Laputta, hundreds of children covered their heads from the rain with empty aluminum plates as they lined up in front of a private donation center on Sunday. They were given rice, a spoonful of curry and a potato.
"Children only. Please. Children only," shouted a man who pushed back a crowd of adults. He explained they were feeding children and the elderly first because food supplies were limited and most adults could still fend for themselves.
The relief effort has been impeded by a lack of logistical support, said Ramesh Shrestha, head of the U.N. Children's Fund in Burma. He said there are not enough trucks to transport supplies and a shortage of manpower to load and unload them.
"Many of those areas are still inaccessible because of the high water table, roads covered with fallen trees and bridges that are broken. The government has been clearing it but it's still not completely done yet," he said.
European Union nations have warned the junta could be committing a crime against humanity by blocking aid intended for up to 2.5 million survivors faced with hunger, loss of their homes and potential outbreaks of deadly diseases.
But signs have appeared that the generals might be listening to the chorus of criticism.
A team of 50 Chinese medics arrived in Rangoon on Sunday night, following in the footsteps of medical personnel from India and Thailand, the official Chinese news agency Xinhua reported. On Monday, some 30 Thai doctors and nurses began working in the delta.
Burma's state-run media has lashed out at critics of the regime's response to the disaster, detailing the junta's efforts. State television showed Than Shwe inspecting supplies and comforting homeless victims in relatively clean and neat rows of blue tents.
The media said Than Shwe traveled from the capital, Naypyitaw, to relief camps in the suburbs of Rangoon.
Some survivors clasped their hands and bowed as he and a column of military leaders walked past.
The official New Light of Myanmar newspaper said the government's National Disaster Preparedness Central Committee will work with foreign aid agencies "to ensure that all relief funds and supplies reach the storm victims."