Page last updated at 08:04 GMT, Monday, 26 May 2008 09:04 UK

UN Burma visit: Reporter's diary

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has toured cyclone-hit Burma and met the Burmese leadership in an effort to speed up the relief operation. The BBC's UN correspondent Laura Trevelyan is travelling with him.


Back to Burma for a conference at which countries were to pledge aid to help the country recover from the cyclone - a very choppy ride in from Bangkok, which resulted in a distinctly bumpy landing.

The pilot apologised profusely, and repeatedly.

Ban Ki-Moon at the donors' conference
More than 40 countries were represented at the conference

During the flight diplomats said what an unprecedented event this pledging conference was, with more than 40 countries coming to Rangoon to engage with a hitherto rather isolated and suspicious government.

We want to nail down this agreement about letting in aid workers, commented one European official - and that was indeed the theme of the conference.

Meanwhile the Hotel Sedona, scene of the pledging conference, was putting on a good show for the outside world - food everywhere, coffee on tap, smiling staff who couldn't be more helpful.

Just across the lake from the hotel is the home of Aung San Suu Kyi, the opposition leader kept under house arrest - a reminder of how the ruling generals suppress political dissent.

In an end of trip interview, I asked Ban Ki-moon whether he had raised her fate with General Than Shwe when the pair met in Burma's new capital - Mr Ban said he was concentrating on the humanitarian situation.

Might Burma's crisis lead to political change, I asked - Mr Ban thought it could be a turning point, and that the Burmese authorities were showing increased flexibility.

Before leaving for the airport, I asked a seasoned observer of the Burmese political scene whether anything's likely to change.

His reply came: Ever so slowly, the train is grinding out of the station.


Another energetic day for Ban Ki-moon.

Ban Ki-moon meets Chinese medics in Yingxiu on 24 May
Ban Ki-moon met Chinese medical staff on his visit to Yingxiu

He left our Bangkok hotel before dawn to travel to the south-western Chinese region of Sichuan, to see for himself the devastation caused by the earthquake and pledge the world's support for the recovery effort.

Mr Ban travelled to Yingxiu, the epicentre of the quake, and met Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao.

No early-morning trips to China for this reporter - the last-minute nature of the visit and space constraints meant the UN took just two of the six journalists travelling with Mr Ban, and I stayed behind.

As Mr Ban surveyed China's relief efforts, the unspoken comparison was with Burma's response to Cyclone Nargis.

BBC map

While China's swift response and Wen Jiabao's hands-on leadership have been largely praised, Burma's ruling military have been heavily criticised for refusing to let foreign aid-workers into the worst-affected areas.

Now Mr Ban appeared to achieve something of a diplomatic breakthrough when he visited Gen Than Shwe in Nay Pyi Taw - all aid-workers regardless of nationality will be allowed in, said the secretary general.

But it still is not clear exactly what this means.

In an enormous warehouse on the outskirts of Bangkok, at the official opening of an air hub from which aid will be flown to Burma, the talk between diplomats and journalists was of whether Burma's leaders had really made a concession and, if they had, how quickly that would become apparent.

Back to Burma tomorrow, for a conference at which countries are expected to pledge aid to help the country recover from the cyclone.


To the brand new Burmese capital Nay Pyi Taw today, built by the ruling generals some 250 miles (402km) north of Rangoon.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon (left) and Burma's leader Gen Than Shwe (right) in Nay Pyi Taw
Mr Ban and Gen Than held a two-hour meeting in the capital

It is a spectacular sight. In the foothills of the mountains, amid the palm trees, there are gigantic newly-build government offices, like the ministry of information, but few people on the streets. There are some sweeping the already immaculate roads.

The highway is vast and in pristine condition, yet there are not many cars. Roundabouts are ornamental, with fountains and giant lotuses as the centrepiece.

"Dictator Disneyland," observed one wag.

The calm and tranquillity is in sharp contrast to the conditions in the Irrawaddy Delta.

We went to the compound where General Than Shwe receives visiting dignitaries, like UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

Unsmiling, with gold rimmed spectacles, the general awaited his guest. More fountains, and fresh flowers everywhere.

After two hours, Mr Ban emerged to announce that Gen Than had agreed to accept foreign aid workers into the worst affected areas.

This is an apparent victory for the dogged diplomacy of Mr Ban. But as a source in the delegation pointed out, it is a significant step in principle, let us turn it into reality.


As I clutched my satellite phone and radio recording equipment at Bangkok airport, I wondered: "Would the Burmese really allow a BBC reporter into the country?"

A displaced family sit inside their tent as they await a visit from Ban Ki-moon, in Kyondah village, Burma (22.05.08)
Mr Ban was shown a neat and tidy camp with brand new blue tents

Colleagues in the United Nations press corps in New York had joked that if the Burmese authorities were going to turn down any visa applications for journalists accompanying Ban Ki-moon, it would be mine.

The BBC is banned from reporting inside Burma. But, no, I sailed into Rangoon without anyone even looking at my luggage, as an official member of Ban Ki-moon's delegation.

Being an official reporter inside post-cyclone Burma is a strange experience. Unlike BBC colleagues who've reported anonymously and must be careful about who they associate with, here we're being given the five-star treatment.

The Burmese military flew us across the Irrawaddy delta, in two Mi-17 helicopters, ostensibly to see the cyclone damage but actually Mr Ban was treated to a carefully choreographed display designed to show how well the Burmese authorities are handling the relief effort.

We were ushered into what one UN official described as a show camp, with not that many people in it. Some empty tents, with a very spick and span appearance.

'Ruthlessly affable'

Then we went off to another model example of Burma's relief operation - a distribution centre for the aid - efficient and well run and orderly. The message was clear. Burma doesn't need any outside help.

View of the Irrawaddy delta from Ban Ki-moon's helicopter
Two Burmese military helicopters flew Ban Ki-moon over flooded rice plains

Mr Ban, who rarely looks ruffled, began to look a little uncomfortable as it became clear quite how the Burmese were stage-managing his visit. But he stuck doggedly to his message: that he's here to help Burma's people try to speed up the relief operation.

Mr Ban is, as one colleague observed, ruthlessly affable.

He greets Burmese colleagues happily, tells them they're doing well then follows up with, "You must do more". Being part of the official entourage makes us something of a curiosity.

In our hotel in Rangoon, on the floors where the journalists and UN delegations are based, by the lifts sit groups of two or three men. They were sleeping there last night. Why? Someone from the Burmese opposition might be trying to get in, to speak to the UN delegation, related one colleague.

Just across the road from our hotel is Aung San Suu Kyi's home. She's the leader of the Burmese opposition, who's under house arrest - a reminder of the ongoing tension here.

Before the cyclone Mr Ban had been trying to encourage talks between Aung San Suu Kyi and the Burmese opposition - a further factor in the fallout between the UN and the Burmese military.

So much for all my state of the art equipment. None of it actually works in Burma, so I've had to borrow a local phone from the UN interpreter and in the process I've learnt my first word in Burmese, chezu tinbade, or thank you.

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Sign in

BBC navigation

Copyright © 2019 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.

Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific