BANGKOK, Thailand – 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 probably was just days away from ordering an American naval group waiting off the coast to leave the area.
Speaking ahead of meetings here with Thai Prime Minister Samak Sundarave, Gates said that most aid being delivered in 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 move 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 blocked by Myanmar’s military government.
Calling the behavior “criminal neglect,” Gates said the U.S. has made more than 15 overtures to Myanmar’s leadership to use the Essex’s helicopters to deliver aid but all had been rejected. Without a change in policy, Gates said, thousands of additional 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, told the Singapore security conference Sunday that his regime had responded quickly to the cyclone and insisted that the regime welcomed 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 Saturday lunch with Gates and other Asian defense ministers in Singapore, and the U.S. defense chief said several ministers in attendance expressed their frustration with the government’s refusal to allow aid to flow more freely.