26 May 2008
Your Excellency the Foreign Minister of Singapore, representing ASEAN,
Your Excellency the Secretary-General of ASEAN,
Distinguished ladies and gentlemen,
Let us begin by paying our respects to the courage and the resilience of the people of Myanmar, who are suffering such hardship and terrible personal loss. We stand with them, as we do with the victims of the recent earthquake in China.
As you know, I visited Chengdu yesterday. I saw for myself the terrible tragedy wreaked by nature on these townships in Wenchuan county. I met Premier Wen Jiabao and witnessed the way the Chinese leadership and its people at all levels were coping with the immediate and longer term effects of the earthquake.
The UN and the rest of the international community have expressed spontaneously their sympathy in both these cases. There have been outpourings of support and promises of financial assistance.
Fortunately, China has the capacity to cope with this disaster. It has been able to respond quickly and resolutely to the crisis. Myanmar does not have resources or capacities to the same degree. Indeed, few nations do, in the face of catastrophes of this magnitude. That is why we are here in Yangon today.
I am heartened to be joined today by so many distinguished leaders and experienced relief experts from around the world. We all know the facts: When Cyclone Nargis struck the Irrawaddy delta, it devastated Myanmar's “rice bowl” and the heart of its fishing industry. More than 130,000 were left dead or missing.
A few days ago, I visited the area and saw for myself the human toll of this disaster -- homes and villages and roads washed away, fields flooded, so many livelihoods destroyed. But I also saw homes -- and lives -- being rebuilt.
The people of this country have shown extraordinary courage and resilience in trying to save their fellow men and to rekindle hopes shattered as a result of this cruel blow.
From all I have seen, the government, with the help of the international community, has put in place a functioning relief program. But clearly much, much more needs to be done.
Expert and experienced international relief workers, in addition to the medical teams from neighbouring countries, must have unhindered access to the areas hardest hit by the disaster. Extra transport assets, including helicopters and boats, are urgently required. Whatever is needed to build an effective aid and logistics pipeline must be quickly put in place and be well-coordinated, both with Myanmar authorities and international aid agencies.
I am encouraged by my discussions with Myanmar's leadership in recent days. They have agreed on the need to act urgently. I hope -- and believe -- that any hesitation the Government of Myanmar may have had about allowing international humanitarian groups to operate freely in the affected areas is now a thing of the past.
Myanmar's Head of State, Senior General Than Shwe, responded with flexibility on all these issues when I met him on Friday. I hope this marks a turning point in tackling the challenges faced by this country. Prompt and full implementation will be key. I shall be closely, continuously and personally engaged. The good news is that the Myanmar government seems to be moving fast on both the letter and spirit of our agreement.
I expect the relief effort will run for several months, probably six months at least, as we feed and care for those who have lost everything. In parallel, our efforts must also turn to rehabilitation, recovery and reconstruction. Farmers and fisherman must be helped to resume their livelihoods. They need nets and boats, fertilizers, seeds and water pumps.
Destroyed infrastructure must be rebuilt. That cannot be our chief concern today. But that, too, will require a major multilateral effort.
That is why I warmly welcome the government's agreement to a join in a coordination mechanism, or Task Force, led by ASEAN and chaired by Secretary-General Pitsuwan Surin. He will outline the proposed arrangement shortly, fully supported by the UN.
I have said repeatedly, both in remarks to the international community and in my recent conversations with Myanmar authorities, that our immediate challenge is humanitarian. Our focus should be on saving lives and helping Myanmar rebuild. We must think about people, just now, not politics.
There is good reason to hope that aid to the worst affected areas of Myanmar will increase significantly in the coming days. These needs must be funded, immediately. We have many generous bilateral and multilateral contributions, in cash and in kind, as well as pledges. But we still need more support for the UN Flash Appeal, which provides a comprehensive assessment of the total needs while ensuring against duplication.
Our Flash Appeal seeks $201 million to assist roughly 1.5 million survivors of Cyclone Nargis with emergency relief for the next three months. To date, we have contributions amounting to some 20 percent of that amount, with a further 20 percent pledged. I urge you to be generous today. The needs remain acute -- from clean water and sanitation to shelter, medical supplies and food. I am especially concerned about the lack of safe drinking water.
Remember, also, that only a few weeks remain until the rice planting season begins. Millions of people depend on this next harvest, at a time when food prices are soaring around the world. A failure to deal with this problem today will immeasurably compound our problems tomorrow.
I therefore hope you will contribute generously in this regard, as well, once a joint assessment has been completed and a viable plan for action is in place.
We have a chance for a new beginning, today. I ask all of us to keep our eye firmly on the immediate objective -- saving lives -- guided by the principles of neutrality, impartiality and our common humanity.