BANGKOK (AlertNet) – The EU's aid chief said she was "encouraged" by Myanmar's willingness to allow aid groups access to more areas of the country and that she considered access to communities uprooted by fighting between troops and northern rebels a priority.
More than 20,000 people fled fighting in Myanmar's northern Kachin state between the army and rebels in June. Tension has been rising in the troubled area bordering China since last year, largely because the Kachin have resisted government pressure to recruit their men into a state-run border security force.
An EU assessment team was ready to visit affected communities in Kachin as soon as the government grants it permission, Kristalina Georgieva, European Commissioner for International Cooperation, Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Response, said on Sunday.
"We will pursue this as a priority issue," she told journalists in Bangkok after a two-day trip to Myanmar -- the first by an EU commissioner since a November election ushered in a nominally civilian government for the first time in nearly half a century.
"(Granting access) is one of the steps that would be a good indication of turning words into action."
The previous junta regime was heavily criticised by the international community for not allowing foreign aid workers in to the country until three weeks after Cyclone Nargis struck in 2008, killing around 140,000 people.
Myanmar's new government had expressed concern about the safety of aid workers in Kachin state, Georgieva said.
"We must continue to work on balancing security concerns with prudence in allowing international organisations to work," she said.
Georgieva met Minister of Border Affairs Thein Htay, Minister for Social Welfare Aung Kyi and Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister Maung Myint who, she said, assured her that humanitarian access would improve and that aid workers' visas would be processed quicker.
She also met opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
While access to Kachin was important, it was not the only litmus test of the new government's sincerity, Georgieva said.
Other important indicators included whether the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) would be allowed to visit more prisons to assess the living conditions of some 2,000 political prisoners, whether the visa process for aid workers would be accelerated and whether more agreements would be signed between the government and aid agencies.
Georgieva declined to put a timeframe on such actions.
"The country is going to move at its own pace and I will not impose any artificial deadlines," she told AlertNet.
Georgieva also said it was important for the international community to work with reform-minded officials in the new government, who are willing to engage more with the outside world.
"Because if the opportunity is there and we don't approach it with care, then the desire may shrink," she said.
"I came with a positive impression at least from this group of people I interacted with ... Their hands would be strengthened if the support they get is genuine and if we listen," she added.
SINCERE CHANGE IN ATTITUDE?
Georgieva said the EU would consider increasing its current multi-million-euro aid package upon signs of an improvement in Myanmar, especially in preparedness for natural disasters.
In 2011, the European Commission is spending over 22 million euros ($30 million) for humanitarian and disaster relief activities inside Myanmar and refugee camps along the Thai-Myanmar border.
The Commissioner said the government also assured her the repatriation of some 140,000 refugees in the camps would be enirely voluntary.
The refugees live in limbo in so-called 'transitional' camps which are almost three decades old and heavily dependent on foreign aid.
Georgieva said she was able to raise every issue she wanted to raise at the meetings including that of the Rohingyas, the persecuted Muslim minority in Northern Rakhine state (NRS) who successive Myanmar governments have refused to acknowledge as citizens.
"The government was clearly less comfortable discussing the issue but they did not refuse to discuss it," she said.
Georgieva said the EU is looking at expanding its aid operations in NRS early next year to include the wider local population -- who are also poor and vulnerable -- to prevent a backlash against the Rohingyas.
She also said she sensed a "sincere change in attitude" from the government in helping survivors of natural disasters and working with international aid agencies.
(Editing by Katie Nguyen)