Laura Bush urges Myanmar to accept U.S. disaster team

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - First lady Laura Bush urged Myanmar’s military rulers on Monday to accept a U.S. disaster response team that so far has been kept out, saying it would clear the way for broader relief in the wake of a devastating cyclone.

Making an unusual foray into foreign policy, Mrs. Bush, an outspoken critic of Myanmar’s generals, also accused the junta of failing to warn its citizens in time about the approaching cyclone that has been blamed for at least 10,000 deaths.

The U.S. Embassy in Myanmar, an impoverished Southeast Asian country under heavy U.S. sanctions, authorized the release of $250,000 in immediate emergency aid, and Laura Bush promised, “More aid will be forthcoming.”

But she made clear that Myanmar must first let in a State Department disaster assistance response team to assess the situation.

The scale of the devastation from Saturday’s cyclone has drawn a rare acceptance of outside help from Myanmar’s diplomatically isolated generals, who spurned such approaches in the aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.

But it may be harder for Myanmar to open up to the United States, which maintains heavy sanctions against the junta.

U.S. State Department spokesman Tom Casey said a disaster response team was “standing by and ready to go into Burma,” now known as Myanmar, which has been ruled by the military for 46 years.

“I understand it the Burmese government has not given them permission to go into the country. ... My understanding was they had asked for permission but the initial response from the government was that they weren’t inclined to let them in,” Casey told reporters.

The State Department authorized the departure of nonessential embassy staff and family members from Yangon and urged U.S. citizens in areas hit by the cyclone to strongly consider leaving Myanmar. It also warned Americans against traveling to the country.

U.S. first lady Laura Bush holds a news conference on aid efforts for the devastation caused by Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar, at the White House in Washington May 5, 2008. REUTERS/Jim Young


In a rare appearance at the podium in the White House press briefing room, Laura Bush said, “If we can get some sort of team in there to assess what the other needs are, then I feel very assured that the United States government will follow with a bigger (aid response).”

But in a sign of the mistrust between the two countries, she added, “I’m worried that they won’t even accept U.S. aid.”

Laura Bush also took the opportunity to condemn Myanmar’s junta for its human rights record, as she has repeatedly since a violent crackdown on protests led by Buddhist monks last September.

And she urged Myanmar’s leaders to cancel a referendum on an army-drafted constitution they plan to go ahead with on Saturday. Critics say it would entrench the military’s power.

President George W. Bush said last week a vote on a new constitution in Myanmar would not be “free, fair or credible” and imposed new sanctions on state-owned companies to put pressure for political change on the junta.

Also on Monday, Laura Bush said, “Although they were aware of the threat, Burma’s state-run media failed to issue a timely warning to citizens in the storm’s path.”

“It’s troubling that many of the Burmese people learned of this impending disaster only when foreign outlets, such as Radio Free Asia and Voice of America, sounded the alarm,” she said.

Asked by a reporter whether she was accusing the junta of having “blood on their hands,” she said it was clear they are “very inept.”

She also disclosed that her husband on Tuesday will sign legislation awarding detained Myanmar democracy advocate Aung San Suu Kyi the Congressional Gold Medal, America’s top civilian honor. Congress approved the award last month.

Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy won elections in 1990 but the junta refused to hand over power and has detained her for most of the time since then.

Editing by David Alexander