Myanmar rejects criticism of junta cyclone response
By Melanie Lee
SINGAPORE (Reuters) - Myanmar's military junta, widely condemned for its slow response to Cyclone Nargis, said on Sunday it had reacted swiftly to the disaster and remained open to foreign aid with "no strings attached."
Speaking at a three-day security conference in Singapore, Deputy Defense Minister Aye Myint said state media had given plenty of advance warning of the May 2 cyclone, which left 134,000 dead or missing and up to 2.4 million others destitute.
The major general's rare public defense came after three days of criticism of the junta's relief effort, including a rebuke from U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates who said "tens of thousands" more had died due to Myanmar's stonewalling on foreign aid.
Western governments and foreign aid groups have criticized the junta's handling of the crisis as slow and unresponsive, a view echoed by many bitter cyclone survivors in the hardest-hit Irrawaddy delta.
But Aye Myint said junta leader Senior General Than Shwe had held an emergency cabinet meeting and dispatched ministers to oversee the relief effort a day after the cyclone.
"Through the prompt and immediate supervision of the supervisory central body headed by the prime minister and member ministers, relief camps and hospitals were opened, debris was cleared, emergency power and water supply restored," he said.
Myint also said life in 33 townships in Yangon had stabilized within three days and areas outside the former capital had returned to normal within one week.
But nearly one month after one of Asia's biggest cyclone disasters, the United Nations says fewer than half of the 2.4 million people affected by the cyclone have received help from the government, or international or local aid groups.
A shortage of flat-bottomed boats is hampering delivery of aid, the European Union said on Friday, with little or no relief reaching isolated villages in the delta.
On Saturday, Gates accused Myanmar's military, which has ruled the isolated nation for 46 years, of being "deaf and dumb" to pleas to allow in more foreign aid and relief workers.
Than Shwe's pledge a week ago to allow in "all" legitimate foreign aid workers has yielded more visas for U.N. relief experts, but red tape is still hampering access to the delta.
Gates contrasted the generals' refusal to accept aid from the U.S. military after Cyclone Nargis struck four weeks ago with the willingness of Indonesia and Bangladesh to accept assistance after natural disasters in recent years.
"With Burma, the situation has been very different -- at a cost of tens of thousands of lives," Gates said.
The United States is expected to decide in a few days whether to withdraw its aid-laden ships from waters near Myanmar.
Singapore, one of the biggest foreign investors in the former Burma, said the generals feared giving greater access to foreign aid agencies would show that the regime was incapable of handling the disaster.
However, Myint reiterated that his government was open to all aid provided that it is not politicized.
"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," he said.
(Editing by Jan Dahinten, Darren Schuettler and Valerie Lee)