BANGKOK (Reuters) - World Food Programme (WFP) chief James Morris flew into Myanmar on Monday for a four-day trip analysts said was aimed at keeping a channel open between the army-ruled country and the outside world.
Morris's visit to Yangon, the first by a high-ranking official of the United Nations in many months, comes amid signs that the junta ruling the former Burma is considering further restrictions on U.N. activities.
Media reports have suggested that Morris, who is expected to meet Prime Minister Soe Win on Thursday, may convey a message from U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan regarding a possible visit. Annan's special envoy, Razali Ismail, has been refused entry to the country since March 2004.
"I don't know if he is carrying a message and, if he is, what it might contain," WFP spokesman Gerald Bourke said.
Morris' visit comes a week after Razali was snubbed by Myanmar Foreign Minister Nyan Win at a regional security conference in Laos.
Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, the U.N. human rights investigator on Myanmar, has been refused a visa since his last visit in November, 2003.
In Yangon, pressure is building on U.N. agencies working in the southeast Asian nation, which is beset by AIDS, poverty and civil war.
Two junta-sponsored organisations have demanded publicly that the International Labour Organisation (ILO) be expelled after it called in June for urgent measures against Yangon over its failure to end the use of forced labour.
Many ILO members, including the United States, have imposed sanctions on Myanmar, which has been ruled by the military in various forms since 1962.
AID WORK HAMPERED
"This is exactly the kind of move you might have expected from the U.N.," Ralph Emmers, a regional analyst at Singapore's Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies, said of the visit by Morris.
"The U.N. would probably want to keep this as a very important issue and is again trying to do so through some form of engagement with the leadership in Yangon," he said.
In an interview with the Bangkok Post published on Monday, Morris said he was going to Myanmar to review WFP humanitarian operations, which include a feeding programme for thousands of former opium-growing farmers in Northern Shan State.
"The restrictions on U.N. international NGOs will be one of the issues I will be raising," Morris told the newspaper.
Bourke said the WFP had experienced "operational constraints" hampering the free movement of aid workers and the delivery of food assistance.
Morris declined to comment in the newspaper interview on speculation that he would convey a message to the junta on a possible visit by Annan, who was invited to Yangon earlier this year by junta leader Senior General Than Shwe.
Myanmar, a pariah in the West since the latest detention of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi in May 2003, bowed to pressure from its neighbours last week and gave up its turn to chair their regional grouping in 2006.
Yangon said 2006 would be a "critical year" for its seven-stage roadmap to democracy unveiled in August 2003 and dismissed by critics as a ploy to entrench military rule.