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'Myanmar junta failed to warn people'

world Updated: May 06, 2008 09:07 IST
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US First Lady Laura Bush accused Myanmar's military rulers on Monday of failing to warn their citizens in time about a killer cyclone and pressed the junta to accept US aid in the disaster's wake.

"Although they were aware of the threat, Burma's state-run media failed to issue a timely warning to citizens in the storm's path," Bush said in an unusual appearance at the White House briefing room podium.

"It's troubling that many of the Burmese people learned of this impending disaster only when foreign outlets, such as Radio Free Asia and Voice of America, sounded the alarm," she said. Washington calls the country Burma.

Laura Bush, who has taken a leading role in shaping US policy towards Myanmar, said Washington "stands prepared" to increase its assistance well beyond an initial emergency 250,000-dollar outlay by the US embassy in Yangon.

She declined to give a precise dollar figure, saying the junta first had to allow a US disaster assistance response team into Myanmar to assess the scope of the devastation from Tropical Cyclone Nargis's weekend rampage.

"I can't speak to how large that would be. But I feel assured that it would be substantial, if we can give it," she said, promising help to provide water, sanitation, food and shelter.

Bush made clear any assistance would go through the United Nations or international nongovernmental organisations -- and not directly to a regime under US sanctions for failing to embrace democratic reforms.

"I hope that the military will realize they have to accept aid from everybody they can possibly accept it from. And maybe that will be the something good that can come out of this terrible destruction," she said.

With the official death toll at 10,000 and expected to rise sharply, Laura Bush declared that "the response to the cyclone is just the most recent example of the junta's failure to meet its people's basic needs."

The US State Department Monday issued a travel warning for US citizens in Myanmar, telling them to "strongly consider departing ... on commercially available flights," and advised all other Americans to "defer non-essential travel" to the country.

The department said it had already authorized the departure from Myanmar of non-emergency employees of the US Embassy in Yangon and eligible family members.

Laura Bush also warned the regime against holding a planned constitutional referendum Saturday and said that her husband, US President George W Bush, on Tuesday would sign a law giving imprisoned democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi
the Congressional Gold Medal -- the highest civilian honor that US lawmakers can bestow.

"That's important," said the first lady, who called the award a way to "let the people of Burma know that the United States is standing with them."

She denounced the referendum, saying the regime "orchestrated this vote to give false legitimacy to their continued rule" and that "it would be very, very odd, I think, if they went ahead."

Laura Bush cited violence against the opposition and noted that Aung San Suu Kyi -- under house arrest for more than 12 of the past 18 years, following her party's sweeping victory in 1990 elections that the junta ignored -- would be barred from holding office under the draft constitution.

"If it proceeds under current conditions, the constitutional referendum they have planned should not be seen as a step toward freedom, but rather as a confirmation of the unacceptable status quo," said the first lady.

"We appeal to China, India, and Burma's fellow ASEAN members to use their influence to encourage a democratic transition," she said, referring to the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

At the same time, Laura Bush acknowledged Washington had "only anecdotal" evidence that its sanctions -- which the US president further tightened last week -- were having an effect on Myanmar's leaders.

Asked whether she worried that US aid might not reach Myanmar's people, Laura Bush replied: "I'm worried that they
won't even accept US aid."

The source of such concerns was unclear. The head of a UN office that coordinates humanitarian aid said the junta had shown their willingess to accept such aid.