U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates painted a bleak picture Sunday of the prospects for delivering international aid to suffering villagers in Myanmar’s devastated Irrawaddy River delta, saying he was probably just days away from ordering an American naval group waiting off the coast to leave the area.
Speaking ahead of meetings here with Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej of Thailand, Gates said that most aid being delivered to Myanmar’s main city, Yangon, was not making it to the hardest-hit areas because of inundated roads, making helicopters the only viable way to transport food.
The U.S. naval presence includes three amphibious ships, led by the Essex, which carry 22 heavy-lift helicopters, but the American aircraft have been barred by the military rulers of Myanmar, also known as Burma.
Calling the regime’s behavior “criminal neglect,” Gates said the United States had made more than 15 overtures to Myanmar’s leadership to allow the use of the Essex’s helicopters to deliver aid, but all had been rejected. Without a change in policy, Gates said, thousands of villagers will die.
“The only alternative is for the international community to force its way, and I think there was unanimity among the defense ministers . . . that we will not do that,” Gates said of his meeting with regional defense officials in Singapore, where he spent three days before traveling to Bangkok.
Myanmar’s deputy defense minister, Maj. Gen. Aye Myint, said Sunday at the security conference in Singapore that his government had responded quickly after the cyclone hit, and insisted that the regime was open to international aid.
“In carrying out the relief, resettlement and rehabilitation tasks, we will warmly welcome any assistance and aid which are provided with genuine goodwill from any country or organization, provided there are no strings attached,” Myint said.
Myint attended a lunch Saturday with Gates and other defense ministers in Singapore, and the U.S. defense chief said several attendees expressed their frustration at the Myanmar government’s refusal to allow aid to flow more freely.
Thai Prime Minister Samak also voiced deep frustration with the Myanmar regime in his meetings with Gates, according to senior U.S. officials. Samak told Gates that he had visited with Myanmar’s leader, Senior Gen. Than Shwe, three times in recent months and that the leadership remained insular and would probably view the introduction of foreign aid workers as a military invasion.
Gates arrived in Thailand after a week of anti-government protests here that have sparked fears the recently elected prime minister could be overthrown in a military coup similar to the one that unseated the government in 2006.
Before the meeting, Gates said he intended to press the United States’ opposition to any military intervention in the civilian Thai government, and one senior U.S. official who attended the summit said Gates pushed the message in front of more than a dozen senior Thai military leaders, some of whom had served in the government after the 2006 putsch.
“It’s one of the reasons the secretary’s here, to reaffirm the military’s relationship is based upon shared democratic values,” the official said. “The message was clear and respectful.”
On Sunday, protests had subsided and central Bangkok was free of the crowds that had flooded the streets.