By Andrew Gray
SINGAPORE, May 31 (Reuters) - Tens of thousands of people died because Myanmar’s government rejected offers of foreign aid for cyclone victims, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said on Saturday.
The Pentagon chief accused Myanmar’s military rulers of being "deaf and dumb" to international pleas to allow in more foreign aid and relief workers.
Gates contrasted Myanmar’s reluctance to accept aid from the U.S. military after Cyclone Nargis struck four weeks ago with the willingness of Indonesia and Bangladesh to accept assistance after natural disasters in recent years.
"We worked with both nations to alleviate suffering, while fastidiously respecting their sovereignty," Gates said, referring to the 2004 tsunami in Indonesia and a fierce cyclone which struck Bangladesh last November.
"With Burma, the situation has been very different — at a cost of tens of thousands of lives," Gates told an annual gathering of Asian security and defence officials in Singapore
"Many other countries besides the United States have also felt hindered in their efforts," he said.
Gates’ comments were among the bluntest by any senior U.S. official describing Myanmar’s response to the cyclone.
The U.S. military has flown cargo planes of aid to the capital city Yangon, but has said it could be much more effective if the ruling junta would let nearby U.S. ships and helicopters deliver supplies directly to affected areas.
But the junta has declined the offer, appearing to fear that a large-scale international relief effort would loosen the grip the generals have held since a 1962 coup.
The official toll of dead and missing from the cyclone is more than 134,000. An estimated 2.4 million people have been left destitute.
At the Shangri-La Dialogue forum in Singpore, Gates took issue with a questioner who criticised Washington’s general policy of trying to isolate Myanmar’s government.
He said the United States had tried as many as 15 times to get the junta to accept more aid in the current crisis.
"Many of those in this room have governments who have tried to engage, and do engage, with Myanmar and have had zero influence in getting them to open up and accept international assistance," he said.
"It has not been us that have been deaf and dumb in response to the pleas of the international community but the government in Myanmar," he said. "We have reached out, they have kept their hands in their pockets."
(Editing by David Fox)