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Gates Laments Burma’s Refusal to Accept Cyclone Recovery Aid

By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service

SINGAPORE, May 31, 2008 – While the United States and the international community have reached out to Burma, the generals ruling the country “have kept their hands in their pockets,” Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said here today.

In a question-and-answer session after addressing delegates of the annual Asian security conference known as the Shangri-La Dialogue, Gates addressed the notion that a failed U.S. policy toward Burma has contributed to the junta’s refusal to allow in international aid.

Cyclone Nargis struck Burma on May 2. The cyclone hit at the Irrawaddy Delta region – a fertile rice-farming area barely above sea level. The storm – with winds of 135 miles per hour and a storm surge – has killed an estimated 134,000 Burmese. Vast portions of the delta washed away, and nearly a month later, large areas remain cut off from the rest of the country.

The extent of the disaster took a day to sink in, but almost immediately nations around the world offered for the estimated 2.5 million people affected. The Burmese junta at first refused all offers, but on May 6 Burma asked the United Nations for assistance. The Burmese government said it would accept food, medicines, water and other supplies, but would not allow foreign aid workers or foreign military personnel to operate inside the country.

An Italian flight finally was allowed to deliver supplies to Rangoon on May 9. The Burmese finally gave landing permission for a U.S. Air Force C-130 Hercules airlifter to deliver supplies on May 14. U.S. Pacific Command chief Navy Adm. Timothy J. Keating was aboard the first flight, and he met with military leaders at the airport and urged them to allow more flights to the stricken nation. He also offered the Burmese government helicopters to help them deliver the aid to cut-off towns and villages in the hardest-hit areas of the country.

The Burmese since have allowed five C-130 flights a day to go into Rangoon. Through May 28, 75 U.S. flights had delivered 670 metric tons of material – mostly water, rations, plastic sheeting, tents, hygiene packets, water purification equipment and the like.

At the same time, four U.S. ships led by the USS Essex steamed to Burmese waters and awaited permission to land tons of relief supplies. The Essex would have been able to use helicopters and air-cushioned boats to speed 41,000 five-gallon containers of pure water to people who desperately need it. The junta has refused to allow the ships to land the supplies.

It wasn’t until May 21 that U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon convinced Burmese leaders to allow international aid workers into the country.

The junta’s delay has killed tens of thousands of Burmese, Gates said. Defense officials said more delays will incur “second- and third-order effects” such as deaths from water-borne illnesses, malaria or exposure.

A questioner wanted to know why United States officials believe they can deal with North Korea, but not Burma. “For a productive dialogue to take place, it is necessary for both parties to feel a need to engage in that dialogue,” Gates explained. “One of the reasons we are engaged with the North Koreans is that the North Koreans – under pressure – came to the table as part of the Six-Party Talks.” The secretary praised China’s role in getting the North Koreans to the talks, and stressed the U.S. engagement is not simply a bilateral exercise, but rather is part of a multilateral discussion.

“I think there has been little indication that Burma has any interest in engaging with the United States, and the reality is – as harsh as it may seem – many of those in this room have governments that have tried to engage or do engage with [the country’s leaders] and have had zero influence in getting them to open up and accept international assistance for a suffering population,” he said. “Governments who have engaged with Burma have had little or no influence in getting them to do the right thing by their own people.”

The United States has tried to reason with the Burmese generals, Gates said. He cited Keating’s face-to-face appeal when he accompanied the first U.S. relief mission, and added that the United States has reached out to the ruling junta “15 different times” in efforts to convince the generals to let the world community help the Burmese people.

“So it has not been us who have been deaf and dumb in response to the pleas of the international community,” Gates said.

An editorial in an official, Burmese government-controlled newspaper said the cyclone victims could “stand by themselves” and criticized U.N. insistence on allowing in aid workers. “The people from Irrawaddy can survive on self-reliance without chocolate bars donated by foreign countries,” the Kyemon newspaper editorial said.

Gates offered his condolences “to the many who have suffered, lost loved ones, and face incredible difficulties” as a result of the Burmese typhoon disaster and the powerful May 12 earthquake that killed thousands in China. He noted the solidarity among Pacific nation in responding to the crises.

“Amid the pain and suffering, it has been heartening to see so much international cooperation by so many in this room,” Gates said. “Many governments are doing everything they can to help save lives and rebuild livelihoods.”

U.S. Pacific Command officials here said the Burmese generals’ attitudes do not look as if they will change. The U.S. ships steaming off the coast probably will have to depart the area within days, they said.

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Robert M. Gates

Related Sites:
Shangri-La Dialogue
Special Report: Travels with Gates

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