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By Ron Corben
Bangkok
31 May 2008

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates says the Burmese military government's rejection of aid soon after the May second cyclone may have cost the lives of 'tens of thousands' of people. As Ron Corben reports from VOA's South East Asia Bureau, the concern expressed by the defense secretary comes amid concern Burma's military is attempting to force local populations out of shelters and back to devastated villages.

US Defense Secretary Robert Gates speaks at annual Shangri-la conference on international security in Singapore, 31 May 2008
US Defense Secretary Robert Gates speaks at annual Shangri-la conference on international security in Singapore, 31 May 2008

Speaking to a regional Asian security and defense seminar in Singapore Saturday, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates' assessment was blunt.  He accused Burma's military government of being "deaf and dumb" to offers of foreign aid.

He said Burma's rejection of international and regional assistance stood in sharp contrast to the response of other nations to similar tragedies, such as the 2004 tsunami in Indonesia and the cyclone that hit Bangladesh in 2007.

"With Burma, the situation has been very different - at a cost of tens of thousands of lives," he said.  "Many other countries besides the United States have also felt hindered in their efforts."

International aid workers say they continue to face bureaucratic delays over access to the regions in the Irrawaddy Delta region that bore the brunt of Cyclone Nargis.

At least 77,000 people have died with a further 56,000 still reported missing, while over two million people are still in need of food, shelter and medicine.

The United States, Britain and France dispatched naval vessels with emergency aid to the Bay of Bengal but the offers were rejected by the Burmese military. The military had also rejected offers by Asian regional partners to supply military helicopters to assist in the immediate aftermath of the cyclone.

Regional countries have backed Mr. Gates' concerns over the delays, restrictions on aid and access to populations devastated by the cyclone.

International aid organizations say less than 30 percent of the more than two million people most seriously affected by the cyclone have received adequate assistance. 

Australian Ambassador to Thailand, Bill Paterson, in an interview with VOA, said Burma needed to provide "unfettered access" on humanitarian grounds to assist the populations still in desperate need.

"These people are living in terrible conditions with the risk of disease outbreaks," he said.  "They have lost their homes, they have lost their families. It's terribly important we get in there quickly. A lot of them probably have lost their lives since the cyclone because aid has not been able to be distributed."

The United Nations, along with the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), reached agreement with Burma's military for access for international aid workers during the lead up to a donor's conference last weekend.

But human rights groups Saturday accused the military of evicting victims from emergency shelters currently housing thousands of people in a bid to force them to return to their devastated villages in the Irrawaddy delta region.

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