Myanmar failed to warn citizens: US first lady


Washington : Myanmar failed to adequately warn its population in advance of the cyclone that hit the nation over the weekend and left thousands of people dead, US first lady Laura Bush said Monday.

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“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, using the country’s historical name.

Bush in recent years has taken up the cause of Myanmar’s humanitarian plight and has been the leading White House voice on the issue alongside her husband, President George W. Bush, who has enacted sanctions on Myanmar to pressure the regime to introduce democratic reforms.

The US announced it would provide $250,000 in immediate emergency aid through the US embassy in Yangon that has killed at least 4,000 people. Myanmar officials have said the death toll could reach 10,000.

Laura Bush said there would be a “substantial” amount more if Myanmar’s ruling military junta agreed to accept US help.

“I’m worried that they won’t even accept US aid,” she said. “And I urge the government to accept aid from the US and from the entire international community right now while the needs of their people are so critical.”

Myanmar’s military regime has been known for its refusal to accept outside help or allow humanitarian organization direct access to the people. Bush said a US disaster response team was ready to go into the country to assess the needs of the populations if Yangon approves the offer.

Bush said the regime’s response to the Cyclone Nargis coupled with the regime’s repressive policies and economic mismanagement of the country showed the ineptitude of its leaders and the need of the international community to pressure the government for democratic change.

“The response to the cyclone is just the most recent example of the junta’s failure to meet its people’s basic needs,” Bush said, accusing the junta of squandering the nation’s natural resources for their won benefit.

The US has sanctions on Myanmar because of its human rights record and violent crackdowns against dissidents, including leading democratic activist and Nobel peace winner Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been under house arrest for years.

Bush said Suu Kyi’s story sparked her interest in Myanmar and supporting the democratic movement.

President Bush last week announced that he was broadening sanctions against Myanmar to include state-run companies whose revenue benefit the regime.

Because of the sanctions, the US will have to look to third parties, international organizations or the United Nations to distribute US assistance. Washington is looking to contribute to food and water supplies, as well as sanitation and shelter.

The massive storm hit Myanmar just a week before Saturday’s referendum on a constitution drawn up by the regime. The US has criticized the document that was drafted without the input of opposition and was designed to strengthen the hand of the junta.

“To ensure their constitution becomes law, the regime has been intimidating voters and using force against dissidents,” the first lady said, adding arrests of dissidents have increased in the run-up to the vote.

“They’ve orchestrated this vote to give false legitimacy to their continued rule,” Bush said.

Bush said the drafted constitution gives the military junta veto power over any changes to the document and bans political dissidents who have been jailed in the past, like Suu Kyi, from running for office.

Meanwhile, President Bush is set to sign legislation Tuesday that would award Suu Kyi the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest award given the legislative body can give to a civilian.