By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 6, 2008
Laura Bush condemned the military government in Burma yesterday for its "inept" response to a deadly weekend cyclone, marking an unusual foray by the president's spouse into a high-profile foreign policy crisis.
Appearing at a White House news conference, the first lady said the military junta in Burma is preventing the United States and other nations from providing help in the wake of Tropical Cyclone Nargis, and she alleged that the country's rulers purposely declined to warn people of the impending danger.
"Although they were aware of the threat, Burma's state-run media failed to issue a timely warning to citizens in the storm's path," she said. "The response to this cyclone is just the most recent example of the junta's failures to meet its people's basic needs."
Foreign Minister Nyan Win said on Burmese television today that the death toll had reached 15,000, including 10,000 from just one town, according to the Reuters news service. He added that 3,000 more remain missing.
Bush also called the Burmese regime "very inept" and urged it to cancel plans for a referendum later this week, which she said would "give false legitimacy to their continued rule."
The remarks underscore the first lady's uncommon emergence as the administration's most visible spokesman on Burma, also known as Myanmar, which is ruled by a junta that is widely criticized as one of the world's most oppressive and corrupt regimes. The news conference marked the first time that she presided at the White House briefing room, which is generally used for official pronouncements by President Bush or his senior aides.
Laura Bush told reporters that her deep interest in Burma was sparked by reading the works of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who is under house arrest and has spent 12 of the past 18 years in some form of confinement. She said the president will sign legislation today awarding Suu Kyi the Congressional Gold Medal, a move that could further stoke tensions between the two countries.
Bush said awarding Suu Kyi the gold medal will "let the people of Burma know that the United States is standing with them."
White House and State Department officials said the U.S. Embassy in Burma has authorized an emergency release of $250,000 for humanitarian aid, but further efforts have been stymied by the refusal of the military junta to allow outside access to the country. U.S. State Department spokesman Tom Casey said that a disaster response team is "standing by and ready to go into Burma" but that "the Burmese government has not given them permission to go into the country."
The European Union has pledged $3 million in aid for Burma. Bush said the United States was preparing to offer "substantial" assistance, but officials have not settled on an amount.
Burma's isolationist military regime seized power in 1962 and has survived uprisings through violent crackdowns and mass arrests of dissidents such as Suu Kyi and the Buddhist monks who led protests last year. The ruling generals, meanwhile, have built a lavish and isolated city called Naypyidaw, or "Abode of Kings," to replace the historic center of Rangoon as the capital.
The United States has attempted to isolate the regime, including through sanctions on state-owned companies announced last week by President Bush. Overall, Burma receives less aid from the United States than from any other major donor state, at less than $4 million annually, according to Refugees International, an advocacy group. Joel Charny, the group's vice president for policy, said yesterday that the United States should lift its restrictions and increase humanitarian aid following the devastating storm.
"The U.S. has spoken recently about the need to support the Burmese people," Charny said. "Now is the time to show that support by providing emergency humanitarian assistance."
Laura Bush said sanctions appear to be "the only kind of pressure the United States can put on Burma," although evidence of their effectiveness so far is "only anecdotal."
"We know already that they are very inept, that they have not been able to govern in a way that lets their . . . country, for one thing, build an economy," she added.
Bush said she called yesterday's news conference in part because she is leaving Washington today for the family ranch in Crawford, Tex., where she is preparing for the Saturday wedding of her daughter Jenna.
Laura Bush receives regular briefings on conditions in Burma from National Security Council and State Department officials, said Mike Green, former senior director for Asia at the NSC. "She deserves enormous credit because the Burma issue can easily fall to the sidelines and she has kept the U.S. government focused on it," Green said.