WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President George W. Bush made a rare appeal to Myanmar’s military rulers on Tuesday to accept U.S. relief officials and added $3 million (1.52 million pounds) in aid to help victims of a cyclone that devastated the Southeast Asian nation.
“Our message is to the military rulers. Let the United States come and help you, help the people,” Bush said, addressing a military government he has long tried to isolate.
The death toll from Cyclone Nargis, the deadliest in Asia since 1991, rose to nearly 22,500 with an additional 41,000 missing, even as Myanmar’s leaders continued to refuse entry to U.S. disaster response teams.
Bush said the United States was ready to provide emergency assistance, including U.S. Navy ships and aircraft carriers already in the region capable of deploying Marines and helicopters on humanitarian missions.
The White House later announced the United States was committing $3 million through the U.S. Agency for International Development to meet the most urgent needs, up from an initial emergency contribution of $250,000.
“We want to do a lot more,” Bush had told reporters in the Oval Office.
But he risked further antagonizing the junta by coupling his aid offer with a signing ceremony for legislation awarding its chief political opponent, detained democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi, the Congressional Gold Medal, the top U.S. civilian honour.
The United States and Myanmar have long been estranged. Bush last week imposed a new round of sanctions on the country’s military rulers to pressure them on human rights and political reform.
With Washington joining other world powers trying to rush in aid after the weekend cyclone, the State Department said on Monday its government was refusing to admit U.S. disaster experts to assess emergency needs. The White House said the teams were on standby in Bangkok.
“We’re prepared to move U.S. naval assets to help find those who lost their lives, to help find the missing, to help stabilize the situation,” Bush said. “But in order to do so, the military junta must allow our disaster assessment teams into the country.”
The disaster’s scale has drawn a rare acceptance of outside help from Myanmar’s generals, who spurned such approaches in the aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.
But it has been harder for Myanmar to open up to the United States because of strained relations, especially since its violent crackdown on protests led by Buddhist monks in September.
Bush had further criticism for Myanmar’s rulers in awarding the Gold Medal to Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate.
“This is a fitting tribute to a courageous woman who speaks for freedom for all the people of Burma, and who speaks in such a way that she’s a powerful voice in contrast to the junta that currently rules the country,” he said.
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.
White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said cyclone aid would not be contingent on Myanmar accepting U.S. disaster teams, and that money would not go directly to the military government but to non-governmental organizations.
Asked whether further aid would be forthcoming, she told reporters: “I think we just need to see ... This $3 million will go a long way. But also if we could get our ships there to be able to help them, more and more people could be helped.”
Additional reporting by Jeremy Pelofsky and Andrew Gray; editing by Patricia Zengerle
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