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Gates Says Burma Guilty of Criminal Neglect After Cyclone

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates says more people will die if Burma's military government does not lift restrictions on relief aid soon. Mr. Gates spoke at an Asian security forum in Singapore, part of his tour of Asia. VOA's Luis Ramirez reports from our Southeast Asia bureau in Bangkok.

High on the agenda at the Asia security forum was Burma, where the United Nations says millions are suffering from the after-effects of Cyclone Nargis, which swept through the country nearly a month ago, leaving 134,000 people dead or missing.

Despite letting in some aid, and some foreign relief workers, Burma's government continues to restrict the amount of help that is reaching the victims.

In remarks at the forum in Singapore, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said unless the Burmese government changes its approach, more people will die. Gates said he would describe the Burmese generals' current policy as one of - in his words - criminal neglect.

The United States has been among those pressing Burma to let in more assistance, especially to those in the hard-hit and remote areas of the Irawaddy Delta. Four U.S. Navy ships have been standing by in the Andaman Sea off the Burmese coast for weeks, loaded with fresh water, medicine, landing craft, and helicopters that could get the aid to victims in a matter of minutes - if they had the Burmese government's permission to do so.

The U.S. Defense Secretary said no decision has been made to call off the operation, dubbed Caring Response, but he said it may be matter of days before the ships are called back.

He said it is becoming clear that the Burmese authorities will not accept the assistance. Analysts say Burma's military - in power since 1962 - views the presence of foreign soldiers as a threat.

Despite reports that aid has yet to reach hundreds of thousands of cyclone victims, Burma's deputy defense minister Aye Myint told delegates at the security forum on Sunday that relief operations in the country are over and the generals are now focusing on reconstruction.

Burma says it needs $11 billion to rebuild. The government has not issued any reports on how it reached that figure and foreign relief experts say it is impossible to verify since no international teams have been allowed to do a thorough assessment.

Aside from Burma, Secretary Gates said the forum in Singapore covered a wide range of issues, including securing some of the world's busiest shipping lanes.

"We talked about security issues, where our cooperation is good and where Malaysia has played an important role, not only in terms of protecting its own security, but in helping to protect the straits of Malacca, and against piracy and against terrorism," Gates said.

After the forum, the U.S. Defense Secretary flew to Bangkok for meetings with Thai officials. His visit followed street clashes among political opponents that have raised fears of another military coup. Thailand returned to democratic rule in January after a 2006 coup ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.