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US Official Urges Burma Military to Widen Aid Pipeline

Death and destruction in Burma from Cyclone Nargis, and the military government's response to international offers of help, was the subject of a hearing Tuesday in the U.S. Congress. VOA's Dan Robinson reports, lawmakers heard from U.S. officials about the status of efforts to get badly-needed food and supplies to devastated areas, and from a representative of Burma's exile government.

Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Scott Marciel says Burma's military has yet to open the aid pipeline wide enough to provide the level of assistance necessary to help tens of thousands of cyclone survivors.

Marciel points to some positive news in recent days, including an increase in the flow of relief to the Irrawaddy Delta region, and government permission for aid workers to arrive from neighboring countries.

However, he adds that shortages are still widespread, and urges the Burmese military to work with its neighbors and the broader world community.

"The situation is increasingly desperate. More than two weeks after the cyclone hit, the U.N. estimates that only one in four people have been reached. The door must be opened far wider and [more] rapidly to prevent a second catastrophe. If assistance and expertise is not allowed in, and thousands of Burmese perish, the responsibility for this catastrophe will fall squarely on the shoulders of Senior General Than Shwe and the other Burmese leaders," he said.

It is difficult to imagine, adds Marciel in his words, a worse and more negligent response to a natural disaster than the one carried out so far by Burma's military.

That's a conclusion voiced by others on the House Asia-Pacific affairs subcommittee, such as New York Democratic Congressman Joseph Crowley. "The behavior of the junta, in my opinion [reflects] a fear of international assistance because they believe the assistance will turn into a revolution against their government. That is, I think right now, what is least on the minds of people who want to help in this situation. This is a humanitarian crisis, we are trying to get food and aid to people who are suffering, to children that are suffering [who] have lost their parents, psychological help for the victims in Burma, but it also says to me that they know deep down inside that what they are doing is wrong," he said.

Greg Gottlieb, with the U.S. Agency for International Development, describes how military government restrictions against wider involvement by a U.S. Disaster Assistance Response Team [DART], have hampered relief.

"When a disaster response team is not present during a large-scale emergency, we are unable to adequately assess or coordinate efforts with our international counterparts. We cannot talk to those who are affected, to see damage first-hand [and] it takes us longer to determine the best course of action and use of our resources," he said.

While the U.S. team has been in Bangkok, Thailand coordinating with United Nations, non-government organizations, and U.S. Department of Defense personnel, Gottlieb says it has not been able to carry out these activities inside Burma itself.

Also appearing before the subcommittee was U Sein Win, who has served for many years as the prime minister of the Burma's exile government.

He suggests that the insistence of Burma's military on carrying through with the remainder of a nationwide constitutional referendum, amid the devastation from Cyclone Nargis, could lead to further domestic unrest. "Currently, the military junta is more occupied with its referendum and constitution, than [with] the plight of the people. It has announced that its constitution has been approved and the process of [legitimizing the] military is already in the works. We foresee even greater political instability in the coming months, as people are bound to be frustrated with worsening social-economic crisis caused by the effects of Cyclone Nargis and the regime's lack of regard for human suffering," he said.

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon will be visiting Burma in coming days and attending an ASEAN/United Nations-sponsored donors conference in Rangoon.

He says he hopes his talks with General Than Shwe and other Burmese military government officials will help increase chances for more aid to flow to stricken areas of the country.