Experts assessing need in Myanmar

Hundreds of experts began assessing the needs of Myanmar's cyclone victims Tuesday as the country's military junta finally gave them access five weeks after the disaster.

But that improved access was undermined by reports the isolationist government had arrested 18 survivors who were on their way to the United Nations office in the commercial capital of Yangon to plead for help.

Some 250 experts from the U.N., the Myanmar government and Southeast Asian nations headed into the Irrawaddy delta on trucks, boat and helicopters for a village-by-village survey, the United Nations said.

Over 10 days, they will determine how much food, clean water and temporary shelter the 2.4 million survivors need along with the cost of rebuilding houses and schools and reviving the farm-based economy.

“It has taken quite a long time but this shows the government is on board by its commitment to facilitate the relief operation and the scaling up that people are asking for,” said Amanda Pitt, a U.N. spokeswoman in Bangkok, Thailand.

The United Nations estimates more than 1 million of the storm's survivors, mostly in the delta, still need help. Cyclone Nargis killed more than 78,000 people in impoverished Myanmar.

The information collected will be released in a report next month by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and should motivate more countries to donate to the cyclone relief operation, Pitt said.

“Many donors said they were ready and willing to provide funding for relief operations and logistics but they wanted more access and more comprehensive assessments,” she said.

The ruling junta has been sharply criticized by foreign governments and aid agencies for its ineptness in handling the disaster. It also has come under particular fire for forcing survivors from camps and allegedly dumping them in their destroyed villages.

Authorities detained 18 women and children Tuesday as they walked to U.N. offices to complain about not receiving any government assistance, according to a government official who refused to be identified for fear of retaliation by the leadership.

The group from Dagon township on the outskirts of Yangon was bundled into a waiting police car and remained in detention, witnesses said.

Pitt said she was unaware of the arrests.

The criticism of the junta's aid effort comes on top of long-standing concerns about its poor record on human rights, including its detention of Nobel Peace Prize laureate and pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

On Tuesday, the junta released 15 members of Suu Kyi's party who were detained last month for demanding her release, a party spokesman said.

The 15 were shoved into police trucks and hauled away May 27 after they marched to her house to demand her freedom.