U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said today that Myanmar's military government has agreed to let all international disaster assistance into its cyclone-ravaged country.
Ban's announcement came after a crucial two-hour meeting today with the junta's leader, Senior General Than Shwe, the country's most powerful figure, in the capital, Naypyitaw.
It was unclear whether the junta would carry out its promise or let in experts and badly needed helicopters from the U.S. fleet off shore.
U.S. State Department spokesman Tom Casey said the statement was welcomed, but had yet to receive any official word that international experts would be allowed into the country to help the 2.5 million cyclone survivors.
"Seeing is believing," Casey said.
Casey and Ban could be forgiven for having low expectations. After all, Shwe, a man trained in psychological warfare, is reputed to be both brutal and mercurial.
During the requisite pre-meeting photo op, I got close enough to ask the senior general whether he cared to share any words; he pretended I wasn't there.
According to Ban's spokesman, the meeting went "much better" than expected. The secretary-general walked out of Shwe's office with a deal to allow international aid workers -- from any country, in any number -- into the areas hit hardest by the cyclone.
When I asked Ban whether this was, in fact, a breakthrough, he said, "I think so."
When I pushed him about whether he actually would take Shwe at his word, he said the general had made the promise "in front of many senior generals." "He is the senior leader," Ban added. "He has the authority."
U.N. officials who were in the room said Shwe -- who's often described as sullen and strange, with a keen interest in astrology -- seemed "sharp" and very much "in charge." He started the more than two-hour long meeting by making a 50-minute, uninterrupted speech.
It's worth remembering that, while significant, this deal comes nearly three weeks after the cyclone hit -- perhaps too late for some of the estimated 2.5 million people left homeless and vulnerable to sickness and starvation.
In order to achieve what appears to be a diplomatic breakthrough, Ban had to enter an alternate reality -- the one controlled by the junta.
Our day began aboard a government jet, complete with a blaring "muzak" soundtrack and white-gloved flight attendants serving cakes. It was almost as if there wasn't a humanitarian crisis of biblical proportions raging just miles away.
The plane took us to Naypyitaw, Myanmar's new capital and a place outsiders rarely see. It's a sprawling, gaudy city with massive palaces and fancy resorts that are more like something you'd find in Boca than Myanmar.
We stopped at one of the hotels briefly, where robed wait staff served us freshly squeezed melon juice. It would have been nice were it not for the knowledge that most of the people in this country live in wretched conditions -- including hotel workers who live in bamboo huts nearby.
Shwe decided in 2005 -- to the surprise of thousands of government workers -- to move the capital from Yangon to this city 200 miles north.
He's spent untold millions carving wide, manicured boulevards, which, when we were there, were eerily empty, out of the jungle. He apparently did so after consulting with his personal stargazer. Critics say he wanted an isolated enclave to defend against a possible foreign invasion -- and also a potential internal uprising.