Bush Plans Call to Chinese Leader Over Burma's Stance on Aid

By Glenn Kessler and Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, May 10, 2008

President Bush plans to call Chinese President Hu Jintao in coming days to seek his help pressing the Burmese government to accept more disaster assistance, U.S. officials said yesterday, after a lower-level diplomatic push this week yielded Burmese permission for one U.S. relief plane, which is scheduled to land Monday.

If the Burmese government does not relent, U.S. officials are discussing other options, including bypassing the government and sending helicopters directly to the affected Irrawaddy Delta, where thousands of bodies have been reported floating in floodwaters and more than 1 million people are estimated to have lost their homes in the aftermath of Tropical Cyclone Nargis.

Officials have rejected as ineffective other actions by the military, such as airdrops, and for now they are sticking to diplomacy. Helicopter relief without government permission "is one of many ideas," said Maj. Kerrie Hurd, spokeswoman for the U.S. Pacific Command in Hawaii. "That is not a plan we are pursuing now."

Hurd and other officials said that Burmese permission to allow a single planeload of supplies, while inadequate, will keep the focus on a diplomatic solution for now. "It is a good sign that we don't have to take any other course of action," she said.

"One flight is much better than no flights," said Gordon Johndroe, spokesman for the National Security Council. "And we're going to keep on working to provide as much assistance as possible in the coming days, weeks and months, because they're going to need our help for a long time."

Diplomatic pressure has been kept below the presidential level. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice spoke Thursday with Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi and yesterday with Indian Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee, urging both governments to use their influence to persuade the Burmese leadership to open its country to relief specialists. In Thailand, a neighbor with close ties to the Burmese government, the same message has been delivered by U.S. Ambassador Eric John.

"The message there from the secretary was to urge all the parties to do what they can to reach out and use whatever leverage they have with that top decision-making layer in the Burmese regime to get them to reverse the course," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said.

However, the official New China News Agency notably did not mention Burma, also known as Myanmar, in its account of the Rice-Yang conversation, saying the two diplomats "exchanged views" on "issues of common concern."

Bush's call to Hu has not been set because Hu has been visiting Japan this past week and Bush's daughter Jenna is getting married at the president's ranch near Crawford, Tex., tomorrow, said one U.S. official speaking on the condition of anonymity.

U.S. officials said yesterday that there are no good ways to prompt Burma's military junta to open its borders and allow for a traditional relief effort. One concern holding back efforts by the military to provide aid without the government's permission, several officials said, is the fear that the junta might respond by harming Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who is under house arrest in Rangoon.

Her party, the National League for Democracy, won a landslide victory in the country's last election, in 1990, but the military leadership refused to recognize the outcome.

The United States could have provided immediate assistance to the beleaguered country because, when the cyclone hit, it was preparing for an annual military exercise -- Operation Cobra Gold -- with Thailand, Singapore, Japan and Indonesia that is focused on training for humanitarian assistance by the military. About 20 helicopters and six C-130 cargo planes, along with Navy ships, are fully prepared to bring supplies into Burma, Hurd said.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company