June 1, 2008 / 9:46 AM / 11 years ago

Myanmar defends cyclone response after U.S. rebuke

* Myanmar defends cyclone response

* Washington says could pull out naval ships

* U.N. official says food distribution slow

By Aung Hla Tun

YANGON, June 1 (Reuters) - Myanmar’s military junta on Sunday defended its response to Cylone Nargis after stinging criticism from the United States, while a U.N. official said food supplies had yet to reach at least 200,000 people.

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who has accused the regime of causing more deaths by stonewalling foreign aid, said on Sunday U.S. ships cruising near Myanmar could leave in a "matter of days" if they cannot deliver relief supplies.

Myanmar Deputy Defence Minister Aye Myint, in Singapore for a security conference also attended by Gates, insisted the government had acted swiftly and it was open to foreign aid with "no strings attached."

"Through the prompt and immediate supervision of the supervisory central body headed by the prime minister and member ministers, relief camps and hospitals were opened, debris was cleared, emergency power and water supply restored," Myint said.

State media had given plenty of advance warning of the May 2 cyclone, which left 134,000 dead or missing and up to 2.4 million others destitute, Myint told the annual gathering of security and defence officials in Singapore.

The former Burma has said the rescue and relief effort is largely over and it is focused on reconstruction. The United Nations has said the scale of the devastation meant the relief phase could last six months.

A major problem in delivering foreign aid has been an inability to get enough international aid workers into the worst-hit Irrawaddy delta due to visa hurdles and red tape.

"We haven’t been able to get the whole mechanism going. Progress has been slow," Hakan Tongul, deputy director in Myanmar of the U.N.’s World Food Programme, told Reuters in Yangon.

Around 500,000 people have received some food and water since the storm struck nearly a month ago, but another 200,000 have received no international help at all, he said.


Some 45 U.N. visa requests were approved after junta leader Senior General Than Shwe promised last week to allow in "all" legitimate foreign aid workers, but obstacles remain.

One western aid worker said on Saturday that a two-day processing period to enter the delta area, which had been earlier cut from two weeks, had now increased to three.

Speaking to reporters in Singapore, Gates, whose government is one of Myanmar’s harshest critics, accused the generals of "criminal neglect".

Asked how much longer U.S. ships and helicopters would be deployed in the area, he said: "I think it’s matter of days."

"No decision has been made at this point but I think they’ve obviously been out there steaming round in circles for a long time at this point," he added.

Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak said southeast Asian nations, loathe to interfere in each other’s affairs, should play a bigger role in a crisis that could be worse than the 2004 Asian tsunami which killed at least 232,000 people.

Nearly a month after the cyclone, some villagers are trying to rebuild their lives, including forming ad-hoc teams to dredge waterlogged fields, rebuild houses and organise food supplies.

"We’re seeing a level of resilience and recovery that’s unlike what we’ve seen before. They are moving onto the next phase of shoring up their lives," Steve Goudswaard of the charity World Vision said.

Authorities began evicting families from government-run cyclone relief centres on Friday, apparently fearing the ‘tented villages’ might become permanent.

"It’s unconscionable for Burma’s generals to force cyclone victims back to their devastated homes," Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.

Some 39 camps in the immediate vicinity of Kyauktan, 30 km (20 miles) south of Yangon, were being cleared as part of a general eviction plan, cyclone survivors and aid workers said.

The evictions followed commentaries in the official media which have criticised donors’ demands for access to the delta and said cyclone victims could "stand by themselves" and did not need "chocolate bars" from foreign countries.

The New Light of Myanmar said in an editorial that "people can easily get fish for dishes by just fishing in the fields and ditches". It also noted "large edible frogs are abundant".

Official papers have in the last few days have also carried more reports of Than Shwe’s visits to the delta area, including photographs of the junta supremo comforting cyclone victims or giving "guidance" on the construction of roads.

(Additional reporting by Andrew Gray, Jan Dahinten, Melanie Lee and Ovais Subhani in SINGAPORE) (Writing by Ed Davies; Editing Darren Schuettler and Valerie Lee)

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