U.S. First Lady Laura Bush says the United States will do all it can to help the victims of the cyclone that hit Burma on Saturday. Mrs. Bush also said it is troubling that many Burmese learned about the cyclone only when foreign broadcasters like the Voice of America and Radio Free Asia sounded the alarm. But as VOA's Paula Wolfson reports from the White House, there are fears in the Bush administration that Burma's military leaders will not accept the aid.
First ladies normally do not appear at the White House podium to talk about events abroad.
But Mrs. Bush has made the cause of the Burmese people her own. And it somehow seemed fitting that she became the face of the administration's response to Cyclone Nargis, which Burmese officials say could claim as many as 10,000 lives.
"The U.S. has offered financial assistance through our embassy," said Mrs. Bush. "We will work with the UN and other international non-governmental organizations to provide water, sanitation, food and shelter."
For now, the money is coming out of the embassy's $250,000 emergency fund. The first lady says the United States wants to do more, but the next step is up to Burma's military leaders.
"The United States stands prepared to provide an assistance team and much needed supplies to Burma as soon as the Burmese government accepts our offer," said Laura Bush. "The government of Burma should accept this team quickly as well as other offers of international assistance."
She says this is an opportunity for the Burmese regime to show it does care about the welfare of its people.
She says the government's performance in the lead up to the storm shows Burma's leaders are inept.
"I think in front of their own people and in front of the world, if they don't accept aid from the United States and from all the rest of the international community that wants to help the people of Burma that that is just another way the military regime looks so cut off and so unaware of what the real needs of their people are," she said.
Mrs. Bush says the Burmese government seems to value its own survival above all else. She says despite all the havoc created by the cyclone, the regime is going forward with a referendum scheduled for this Saturday on a new constitution drafted without input from opposition and minority groups.
"Burma's ruling generals have had their chance to implement the good government they promised to their people," said Mrs. Bush. "If it proceeds under current conditions, the constitutional referendum they have planned should not be seen as a step towards freedom, but rather as a confirmation of the unacceptable status quo."
Mrs. Bush stresses the United States has already placed sanctions on the Burmese government, and urges other countries to do the same. She makes clear Washington will keep the pressure on, noting President Bush will sign legislation Tuesday setting the stage for Burmese democracy advocate Aung San Suu Kyi to be presented with a Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian honor bestowed by the U.S. Congress.