Asia Crisis

Rice says Myanmar must not make aid political

(Adds Rice, Hadley, more details)

WASHINGTON, May 7 (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Wednesday urged Myanmar's junta to allow international aid into the country to help victims of the cyclone, saying it should not be a political issue.

Rice said the United States had appealed to countries with influence over Myanmar -- China, Japan, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and India -- to get them to use their leverage to convince the junta to allow in aid so far refused.

"What remains is for the Burmese (Myanmar) government to allow the international community to help its people. It should be a simple matter. It is not a matter of politics. This is a matter of a humanitarian crisis," Rice told reporters.

The United States and other Western countries have imposed tough sanctions against Myanmar over its human rights record, punitive measures that have antagonized the government.

But Rice and other top U.S. officials said the military rulers should not politicize the aid and urged them to put aside their mistrust of the international community and allow a full aid effort to commence.

Rice said there were millions and millions of dollars in assistance waiting to be delivered and international disaster experts were stationed in nearby countries, ready to help. But they had not yet been given visas by the Myanmar government.

"It should be a matter that the government of Burma wants to see its people receive the help that is available to them," Rice said.

"This is the kind of crisis which will only get worse without humanitarian assistance being made available from the international community," she added.


Asked why he thought Myanmar's rulers were reluctant to grant visas to let in relief officials, Stephen Hadley, Bush's national security adviser, told reporters: "It's hard to fathom ... This a humanitarian disaster of enormous proportions."

"The junta should please open its doors and let the international community provide humanitarian assistance to the people in Burma," he added. "I don't want to say a whole lot more because I don't want to politicize this."

Earlier a U.S. diplomat working in Myanmar said according to estimates from an unnamed international aid group, as many as 100,000 people may have died from the cyclone -- many as a storm surge swept them out to sea. Government estimates are much lower.

"The information that we're receiving indicates that there may well be over 100,000 deaths in the delta area," Shari Villarosa, the charge d'affaires of the U.S. Embassy in Myanmar, told reporters in a conference call from Rangoon.

There was a strong risk of an outbreak of disease because of the lack of clean water, Villarosa said.

She said the United States was making efforts to meet with ministers and senior officials and hoped to convey the message that the country needed a massive international relief effort. "This is a very paranoid regime," she said of the junta.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said aside from pressing close Asian allies and neighbors of Myanmar, U.S. diplomats had also contacted the country's embassy in Washington but so far received no response over whether visas would be granted to U.S. disaster experts waiting to get in. (Additional reporting by Susan Cornwell and Matt Spetalnick, editing by Cynthia Osterman)