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Junta allows U.N. aid workers into Myanmar

  • Story Highlights
  • UNICEF officer calls government's decision "a positive step forward"
  • Team to help local workers assess situation in devastated Irrawaddy Delta
  • Myanmar junta says voters in Irrawaddy and Yangon approved constitution
  • Referendum was held there two weeks after rest of country due to cyclone
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(CNN) -- Six UNICEF staffers arrived in Myanmar on Monday after being granted access to enter areas hardest hit by the cyclone in a sign the nation's secretive military junta may be keeping its promise.

The team will assist five local workers in assessing needs in the devastated Irrawaddy Delta. They are expected to remain in the region for a week and map out the heavily-affected areas that have been inaccessible to aid organizations until now.

The decision "is seen as a positive step forward and a kind of openness that the (U.N.) Secretary General has been pushing for in the past few days," UNICEF Emergency Communication Officer Mike Bociurkiw told CNN.

Meanwhile, Myanmar state media said Monday that voters in the cyclone-ravaged regions of the southeast Asian country had overwhelmingly approved a draft constitution that strengthens the military junta's decades-long grip on power.

Television station MRTV4 reported that 92.93 percent of eligible voters approved the constitution in a delayed referendum held Saturday, two weeks after the rest of the country also approved it by an almost margin.

The draft constitution makes way for general elections in 2010, but it has been met with skepticism from pro-democracy opposition leaders.

The changes grant 25 percent of parliamentary seats to the military and state that the president can cede power to the military during a state of emergency.

Myanmar, also known as Burma, last held multiparty elections in 1990, but the military junta -- which came into power in 1962 -- ignored the results.

The low-lying Irrawaddy Delta, known as the country's rice bowl because it produces up to 60 percent of its staple crop, bore the brunt of the May 2 storm.

The cyclone wiped out crops and flooded the area with salt water, imperiling future harvests. Bodies still lined the shore in some spots, aid workers reported.

About 130,000 people either died or are still missing, according to the United Nations. Myanmar's government has put the death toll at 78,000.

Until now, Myanmar's military leaders have prevented foreign agencies from doing a needs assessment and insisted that any aid be distributed by its soldiers and volunteers. That demand runs counter to the policy of many agencies.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon spent the weekend in Myanmar and guided a conference of 52 donor nations on Sunday. At the meeting, countries pledged in excess of $100 million to help Myanmar recover and said more money would be forthcoming once aid groups are granted access to the worst-affected areas -- a condition the junta agreed to. Video Watch a U.N. official discuss what's being done on the ground »

The Myanmar government had asked for $11 billion in assistance, saying that the relief phase of the disaster was already over and that money was needed for reconstruction and rehabilitation efforts.

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But donor nations insisted that immediate relief needs have yet to be met. Ban said the effort would take at least another six months.

The United Nations estimates only about 40 percent of the affected regions have been reached.

CNN's Saeed Ahmed and David Ariosto contributed to this report

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