Tuesday, May 20, 2008

US: Myanmar's storm response appalling

Associated Press Writer

A senior U.S. diplomat said Tuesday that Myanmar's military-led government will be responsible for a second catastrophe if thousands of desperate cyclone survivors die because the junta continues to bar foreign aid and disaster workers.

Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Scot Marciel told lawmakers that the generals running Myanmar, also known as Burma, cannot manage the distribution of aid needed to help people facing disease, malnutrition and exposure to the elements.

"The situation is increasingly desperate," Marciel said. He called the government's response to Cyclone Nargis appalling and blamed its failure to give foreign aid workers greater access to victims for putting hundreds of thousands of lives at risk.

"Let me be clear: if assistance is not allowed in, and thousands of Burmese perish, the responsibility for this catastrophe will fall squarely on the shoulders of Senior Gen. Than Shwe," the head of the country's ruling junta, and other leaders, Marciel said in testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asia. "Every day that goes by and more people suffer, increasingly the blame falls on the government."

Marciel said Myanmar's decision to hold a referendum on its draft constitution after the May 2-3 storm hit clearly shows its indifference to its own people's welfare. He criticized the government's "inexplicable failure to allow aid, to make relief a priority."

His comments came as the U.N.'s top humanitarian official made fresh pleas to Myanmar to allow in more foreign aid for survivors. The country has begun three days of mourning for the 134,000 dead and missing from the storm.

U.S. officials have complained that skilled aid workers are being forced to sit on the sidelines, waiting for permission from the government to enter, as victims of the cyclone die.

Lawmakers also lashed out against Myanmar's military, which has held power since 1962; the current junta came to power in 1988.

Democratic Rep. Joseph Crowley called the generals' response to the storm a "crime against humanity." "They know deep down inside that what they're doing is wrong, that they're morally corrupt," he said.

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, a Republican, said he hoped the disaster would spur change in the country's leadership. "This is criminal behavior," he said.

Marciel, who is also U.S. ambassador to the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations, said the U.S. has made available more than $17.5 million (euro11.2 million) in aid; more than $16 million (euro10.2 million) has gone to U.N. programs and "trusted non-governmental organizations."

Myanmar's generals received international criticism for sending troops to quash peaceful protests in September. The country's junta held elections in 1990 but refused to hand over power when the opposition party won in a landslide.

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