Monday, 2 June 2008

Malaysia presses Myanmar to allow ASEAN militaries help the cyclone-devastated country

(Associated Press WorldStream Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) SINGAPORE_Malaysia urged Myanmar's junta Sunday to let Southeast Asian militaries help deliver aid to cyclone victims, an unprecedented plea for foreign intervention in a region where nations generally stay out of each other's affairs.

The appeal by Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak at an international security conference came after Myanmar's Deputy Defense Minister Aye Myint used the forum to claim that his government acted promptly to provide relief in the aftermath of the May 2-3 Cyclone Nargis.

But Najib said the tragedy was of such a huge scale that the toll could surpass that of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami in Indonesia, where about 167,000 people died.

Cyclone Nargis killed about 78,000 people and left nearly 56,000 missing. Some 2.4 million survivors are in need of fresh water, food and medical care.

Myanmar has not allowed foreign militaries to deliver aid directly to cyclone victims, but Najib suggested that militaries of the 10-country Association of Southeast Asian Nations be allowed to do so.

"At the risk of offending my colleague here I would certainly speak on behalf of ASEAN that we do want to play a bigger role in the context of tragedy in Myanmar," Najib said, referring to Aye Myint, who sat next to him on the stage.

It was the most direct public appeal so far by a member of ASEAN for Myanmar's military rulers to give up their refusal to allow greater foreign help. ASEAN has generally followed the principle of noninterference in each other's affairs, and Najib's plea was unprecedented.

Najib said such a military mobilization would not threaten the junta.

"There is no other agenda in our mind when we send our military into stricken areas," he told reporters after the conference.

During the conference, he described the situation in Myanmar as "very, very serious" and noted that the military was the "only viable organization" that could be effective in disaster relief operations and could afford to deploy a large number of helicopters and boats. Such means of transport are needed to deliver aid to remote areas, he said.

"There is a huge human tragedy of the highest proportion that might befall the people of Myanmar if the government of Myanmar doesn't allow greater participation by ASEAN countries and by the world," he said.

Several people in the audience lambasted Myanmar after Najib's comments, with one questioner calling its actions "a scandal."

Aye Myint sat stoically through the verbal attack and did not respond to Najib's plea, saying only that his government was not preventing aid workers from doing their work.

Earlier in a speech, Aye Myint claimed that his government acted promptly in rescuing and providing relief. He also said that food, water and medicines have been provided to all victims, and that the government has now moved to a rehabilitation phase.

Many international aid agencies and foreign governments have said little government aid has reached most of the survivors.

Najib said that according to Malaysian aid workers in Myanmar, the scale of the disaster could become even bigger than the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami if aid does not soon reach people.

"I don't know if that is a correct assessment but it is one view delivered to us by people who have been on the ground," he said.


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