June 1, 2008 / 5:26 AM / 11 years ago

Malaysia wants bigger ASEAN role in Myanmar relief

SINGAPORE, June 1 (Reuters) - Malaysia’s deputy prime minister warned on Sunday that the disaster caused by Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar had the potential to be worse than the 2004 tsunami, and demanded a bigger role for Southeast Asian nations in the relief work.

Myanmar has said the rescue and relief effort is largely over and it is focused on reconstruction, but the United Nations has said the scale of the devastation means the relief phase after Cyclone Nargis struck on May 2 is likely to last six months.

The reclusive country agreed last month to allow the Southeast Asian regional body ASEAN, of which Myanmar is a member, to send medical workers to help with the aftermath of the cyclone that left 134,000 dead or missing.

"We would like to see ASEAN to be allowed to play a much bigger role because the situation is very very serious in Myanmar," Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Mohd Najib told a panel discussion at a security conference that was also attended by Myanmar’s Deputy Defence Minister Aye Myint.

"If aid does not reach out to the people really affected, the scale of the disaster could be even bigger than the tsunami in Aceh."

The December 2004 earthquake and subsequent tsunami killed at least 232,000 people.

Najib also said that he had spoken with U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates on the sidelines of the security conference and agreed that the only organisation that could effectively help with the relief work was the military because helicopters and boats were need to distribute aid.

"At the risk of offending my colleague here, I would certainly speak on behalf of ASEAN countries, we would like to play a bigger role in the context of the tragedy of Myanmar."

He added that Myanmar’s ruling junta would be more comfortable with accepting help from ASEAN than from other countries or organisations. (Reporting by Jan Dahinten & Ovais Subhani; Editing by David Fox)

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