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'Myanmar can accept aid from India if not from US'

May 06, 2008 08:41 IST

United States First Lady Laura Bush, an acerbic critic of the military junta in Myanmar, in the wake of the devastating cyclone that has affected more than two million people and killed several thousands in that country, hoped that the Myanmar government would at least accept humanitarian assistance from India even if they don't from the United States.

Images: Cyclone toll crosses 10,000

In an unprecedented press conference in the history of the United States where a First Lady has come to the podium of the White House press briefing room to talk about a natural disaster in a foreign country -- which is usually the preserve of the President or the Secretary of State -- Laura, asked what message she would have for India in terms of what it can do to help, said, India indeed could help since "India is close, on the border there".

"I think there are a lot of ways they could help and get help there quickly, and maybe the Myanmar government would accept it more readily from the Indian government than they do from the US government."

On whether the sheer lack of trust between Washington and Yangon would impede the flow of any significant US aid to the victims of the cyclone, she reiterated that the US was looking towards India and other countries in the region to step up to the plate to alleviate the suffering of Myanmar's people.

She acknowledged, "That's always the question when sanctions are part of any sort of pressure that we can put on a government. And, in fact, that seems to be the only kind of pressure the United States can put on Myanmar. (So) Certainly, we hope that India, for instance, and other countries in the neighbourhood can step up if they won't accept aid from the United States."

But she argued, "I think in front of their own people and in front of the world, if they don't accept aid from the United States and from the rest of the international community, then that is just another way that the military regime looks so cut off and so unaware of what the real needs of their people are."

Earlier, in her opening remarks, Laura said, "Americans are a compassionate people and we are already acting to provide help. The US has offered financial assistance through our embassy. We will work with the UN and other international nongovernmental organizations to provide water, sanitation, food and shelter. More assistance will be forthcoming."

She added, "The US stands prepared to provide an assistance team and much-needed supplies to Myanmar as soon as its government accepts our offer. The government of Myanmar should accept this team quickly, as well as other offers of international assistance."

Laura also slammed the military junta, saying: "It is troubling that many of Myanmarese learned of this impending disaster only when foreign outlets -- such as Radio Free Asia and Voice of America -- sounded the alarm. Although they were aware of the threat, Myanmar's state-run media failed to issue a timely warning to citizens in the storm's path."

"The response to the cyclone is just the most recent example of the junta's failure to meet it people's basic needs," she added.

Laura said that despite the havoc created by this weekend cyclone, 'as far as we can tell, Myanmar's military leaders plan to move forward with the constitutional referendum scheduled for May 10', which is predicted to be farce since 'they have orchestrated this vote to give false legitimacy to their continued rule'.

"The proposed constitution was drafted in a flawed process that excluded opposition and some key ethnic groups. It would effectively give the military a veto over any constitutional changes," she said, added that it would 'prohibit democracy activists who are current or former political prisoners, including Aung San Suu Kyi, from taking office'.

While thanking the European Union, Canada and Australia for joining the US in imposing tighter sanctions against Myanmar 'in response to the regime's continued repression,' Laura appealed to China, India and Myanmar's 'fellow ASEAN members to use their influence to encourage a democratic transition'.

And, in disclosing an forthcoming action likely to incense the ruling military junta even further, the First Lady said on Tuesday that President Bush would sign a Congressional legislation that awards Aung San Suu Kyi the Congressional Gold Medal, one of the highest honours the US bestows on a person. The last foreign leader to receive the honour was the Dalai Lama earlier this year.

Questioned about this unprecedented historical interest by a First Lady, Laura said, "You know I have always been interested in Myanmar. It started really with an interest in Aung San Suu Kyi and reading her works, and just the story of a Nobel Prize Winner who has been under house arrest for so long, whose party was overwhelmingly elected in an election and then never able to take office."

"And, so it started with an interest in her, and then just the more I have seen, the more critical I see the need is for the people in Myanmar to be -- for the world to pay attention to the people of Myanmar, and for the world to put pressure on the military regime."

Aziz Haniffa in Washington, DC