United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon arrived in Bangkok in the afternoon of Wednesday, 21 May, en route to Myanmar to see for himself the areas and people affected by Cyclone Nargis. From Bangkok, he would also travel to the epicentre of the earthquake in the Chinese province of Sichuan.
Addressing the press soon after landing in Bangkok, he said it was a critical moment for Myanmar, with the relief programme currently able to reach only about a quarter of the people in need. He also spoke of the specific objectives of his next day’s visit to Myanmar, which included facilitating the free movement of international relief aid and workers; exploring ways in which the United Nations could help provide medium- and longer-term assistance; and reinforcing a partnership between Myanmar and the international community, including the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and key neighbouring countries like India and China.
“I intend to do all I can to reinforce their efforts, in coordination with Myanmar authorities and international aid agencies. I will discuss with everyone -- Myanmar Government officials, the leaders of neighbouring countries, relief coordinators and international donors -- the way forward and how best to save lives and prevent further hardship,” the Secretary-General said to the press. He closed by saying: “We must all do our utmost for the people of Myanmar,” and he reiterated that issues of assistance and aid in Myanmar should not be politicized “…our focus now is on saving lives”.
He met in Bangkok, that evening, with Thai Foreign Minister Noppadon Patama, and later with the Secretary-General of ASEAN, Surin Pitsuwan, thanking them for Thailand’s and ASEAN’s logistical support and broader diplomatic efforts to help the Myanmar Government and the international community to work more closely together on the crisis.
Upon arrival in Yangon, Myanmar, on Thursday morning, the Secretary-General was welcomed by Foreign Minister U Nyan Win. He signed a book of condolences for the victims of Cyclone Nargis and visited the 2,000-year-old Shwedagon pagoda, the holiest Buddhist shrine in Myanmar. “The United Nations and the whole international community stand ready to help you overcome this tragedy,” he said to the trustees of the pagoda. “That is why I am here. The main purpose of my coming to Myanmar is to demonstrate my solidarity and bring a message of hope.”
He then met with Prime Minister Thein Sein, stressing to him that foreign aid experts needed to be rushed in because the crisis had exceeded Myanmar’s national capacity. The Secretary-General felt that at least six months of food and medical assistance was needed, in parallel with the recovery effort. He appealed to the Prime Minister to open the doors to international humanitarian experts to coordinate the relief effort that had left many local staff exhausted and overstretched.
He then flew by military helicopter over the heavily devastated Ayeyarwady delta. He was accompanied by John Holmes, the United Nations Emergency Relief Coordinator, amongst other senior advisers. They flew over seemingly endless flooded fields and villages, rivers swollen past their banks, people huddled on rooftops, in tent villages or taking to boats. The tour, which lasted four hours, included two stops -- one at a makeshift relief camp where he met survivors of the village of Kyondah. He was briefed by Energy Minister Lun Thi. There, he told one of the families: “The whole world is trying to help Myanmar.” The other stop was at a distribution centre at Mawgyun, stocked with dozens of bags of rice and cartons of sealed bottles of drinking water.
On Thursday evening, the Secretary-General attended a dinner in Yangon hosted by Prime Minister Thein Sein.
On Friday morning, the Secretary-General travelled to Myanmar’s capital, Nay Pyi Taw, for a meeting with Senior General Than Shwe. Following the meeting, which lasted nearly two hours, the Secretary-General said that substantive progress was made on all critical issues at hand regarding humanitarian assistance to Myanmar, and that the Senior General had agreed to allow international aid workers into the affected areas, regardless of nationality. He added that Myanmar also agreed to speed up the visa issuance process for the aid workers.
Before returning to Yangon, the Secretary-General toured the construction site of the future presidency and new Parliament buildings in Nay Pyi Taw and attended a lunch hosted by Foreign Minister Nyan Win.
Speaking to the press later, the Secretary-General expressed optimism that the Senior General also agreed to open up Yangon Airport to be used as a logistical hub for international aid from which it could be more quickly distributed to those in need.
He also said that further agreement was made that international aid could be delivered to Myanmar via civilian ships and small boats. Adding that such a commitment by Myanmar is quite a breakthrough, the Secretary-General reiterated his hopes that all the points agreed upon could speedily produce results and that the immediate implementation would be key.
He also met in Yangon with United Nations staff involved in the relief effort, and laid a wreath on former Secretary-General U Thant’s tomb, before flying back to Bangkok.
On Saturday, the Secretary-General flew from Bangkok to China, where he visited an area in Chengdu affected by the recent earthquake. (See Press Release SG/T/2606.)
Back in Bangkok in the afternoon of the 24th, he launched jointly with the Prime Minister of Thailand, Samak Sundaravej, and with the Secretary-General of ASEAN, Surin Pitsuwan, the air bridge between Bangkok and Yangon in support of the Cyclone Nargis Response in neighbouring Myanmar, from the United Nations staging area at Don Mueang International Airport.
Later in the day, the Secretary-General met with Thai Prime Minister, Samak Sundaravej, at Government House.
The Secretary-General and his delegation returned to Myanmar early on Sunday, where a joint ASEAN-United Nations International Pledging Conference was held. In opening the conference in Yangon, he paid 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,” he said, “as we do with the victims of the recent earthquake in China.” He urged participants to be generous towards the flash appeal of $201 million to assist the roughly 1.5 million survivors of Cyclone Nargis over the next three months. (See Press Release SG/SM/11597.)
Adding that prompt and full implementation is crucial, he said that “the good news is that the Myanmar Government seems to be moving fast on both the letter and spirit of our agreement”. Rehabilitation, recovery and reconstruction must occur in parallel with relief efforts, the Secretary-General underscored to the representatives of more than 50 nations who attended the Conference. “Farmers and fisherman must be helped to resume their livelihoods,” he noted. “They need nets and boats, fertilizers, seeds and water pumps. […] The needs remain acute, from clean water and sanitation to shelter, medical supplies and food,” he said.
The Secretary-General returned to Bangkok after the Yangon meeting on Sunday, 25 May. At a press conference before flying back to New York that evening, the Secretary-General described his travels that week as “both sobering and encouraging”. On the Myanmar relief effort, Mr. Ban said that the people and the Government of Myanmar, together with the international community, have put together a relief programme under difficult conditions, “but much, much more needs to be done”. He pointed out that some international aid workers and non-governmental organizations were already reaching the Ayeyarwady delta unhindered, and voiced hope that this signalled a new partnership between Myanmar and the international community. He added that he would remain “fully, continuously and personally engaged”, and said he looked forward to returning, before too long, to see for himself the progress made.
The Secretary-General departed Bangkok that evening to New York.