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Burma junta defends its 'prompt' response to cyclone

But US accuses government of 'criminal neglect'

A woman walked Saturday amid the debris of homes still occupied in Burma's hard-hit Irrawaddy Delta. The junta has come under sharp criticism for kicking survivors out of shelters. A woman walked Saturday amid the debris of homes still occupied in Burma's hard-hit Irrawaddy Delta. The junta has come under sharp criticism for kicking survivors out of shelters. (KHIN MAUNG WIN/AFP/Getty Images)
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Associated Press / June 2, 2008

RANGOON, Burma - Burma's ruling junta, faced with global outrage about its low-key response to last month's deadly cyclone, said yesterday that recovery from the catastrophe will be speedy and extolled the country's top leaders for their actions in the crisis.

But criticism of the military junta's response to the storm continued, with US Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates saying the government had acted with "criminal neglect."

The regime has limited the number of foreign relief workers and limited their movement despite agreeing more than a week ago to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon's request that they be allowed into the most affected areas in the Irrawaddy Delta.

The junta has also refused to allow military ships off Burma's coast to bring in aid.

Major General Aye Myint, deputy defense minister, attending an international security meeting in Singapore, praised the government's relief operations as Burma authorities back home pushed ahead with plans to open schools today in several cyclone-battered areas - a move that aid groups fear could put children at risk.

Aye Myint told the conference that the military junta broadcast warnings about the May 2-3 cyclone more than a week in advance and moved quickly to rescue and provide relief to the estimated 2.4 million survivors.

"Due to the prompt work" of the military government, food, water, and medicine were provided to all victims, the defense minister said. "I believe the resettlement and rehabilitation process will be speedy."

The comments were made a day after the junta came under sharp criticism for kicking homeless cyclone survivors out of shelters and sending them back to their devastated villages. Cyclone Nargis killed 78,000 people and left another 56,000 missing.

Hundreds, if not thousands, of displaced people have recently been expelled from their temporary shelters in schools, monasteries, and public buildings, Human Rights Watch said Saturday.

"The forced evictions are part of government efforts to demonstrate that the emergency relief period is over and that the affected population is capable of rebuilding their lives without foreign assistance," Human Rights Watch said.

Some international aid agencies said their staff members were still meeting survivors deep in the delta who have not received any help since the storm hit.

Gates, who also attended the conference in Singapore, said a Burma representative at the forum did not seem interested in speaking with him.

Speaking yesterday in Thailand, Gates said Burma's reluctance to allow a free flow of foreign assistance and aid workers meant that many more people would die. He was referring particularly to the refusal of the junta to allow US, British, and French military ships off Burma's coast to bring in aid.

Gates told reporters that he will make a decision within "a matter of days" about withdrawing US Navy ships, because "it's becoming pretty clear the regime is not going to let us help."

As a result, he said, many more people will die, particularly those in areas that can be reached only by helicopters, such as those sitting idle on the US ships.

Asked whether the military junta there is guilty of genocide, Gates said: "I tend to see genocide more as a purposeful elimination of people. This is more akin, in my view, to criminal neglect."

Burma leaders have also been criticized for not immediately visiting cyclone-affected areas. Senior General Than Shwe, junta leader, visited some refugee camps two weeks after the storm.

An article yesterday in the New Light of Burma newspaper said the junta leader had intended to visit the affected regions as soon as the storm occurred.

"But the senior general with farsightedness went to those regions later so that the prime minister, head of the National Disaster Management Committee, could carry out the relief and rescue work more effectively," it said.

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