Update on U.S. Relief for Myanmar

Mike Shuster reports on the latest developments from an Asian security summit and discusses U.S. naval ships off the coast of Myanmar trying to deliver aid.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said in Singapore today that restrictions by the Myanmar government on international humanitarian relief in the aftermath of that devastating cyclone has cost tens of thousands of lives.

Secretary Gates is attending an Asian security summit known as the Shangri-la Dialogue. He expressed frustration that the ruling military junta in Myanmar has so far not permitted several U.S. naval ships that are off the nation's coast to deliver relief supplies. NPR's Mike Shuster is in Singapore. Mike, thanks for being with us.

MIKE SHUSTER: Hi, Scott.

SIMON: And what's the status of those ships?

SHUSTER: Well, there are four U.S. ships off of Myanmar's coast, and they're carrying lots of food, water, mosquito netting and sheeting for shelter. There's also thousands of Marines and sailors on the ships, and the United States has offered to put them to work helping to distribute the aid in Myanmar, but the military government of Myanmar so far refused the U.S. permission to help.

The United States has been flying five planeloads of relief aid into Myanmar every day for the past three weeks. That's a lot of flights, but U.S. officials are frustrated that the authorities in Myanmar won't allow more, and so today, Secretary Gates really took into the Myanmar authorities and called them deaf and dumb to the pleas from the international community.

SIMON: Is there any indication from the military or anybody in Secretary Gates' party how long - because the ships have been there what, more than three weeks already. How much longer?

SHUSTER: That's right, and I'm told by U.S. military officials that it's now just a matter of days before the Defense Department decides to send them elsewhere. The government of Myanmar might have another two or three days to reverse its position and allow the Marines and sailors to help, but it doesn't look like that's going to happen.

SIMON: We should not the secretary in Singapore delivered a wide-ranging talk today on several issues, including some concern in Asia that because of the Iraq War, U.S. focus on the Middle East, the U.S. might have lost its commitment to involvement in Asia. What did the secretary say about that?

SHUSTER: That's right, Scott. Secretary Gates went to great lengths to convince the delegates here, and they were many senior military and political leaders from across Asia listening, that the United States is committed to a continuing presence in the Asia-Pacific region.

He said the U.S. is an Asian power. It's committed to its military alliances in the region, like with South Korea and Japan, and committed to preventing conflict in the region as Asian nations grow and change with an especial focus on China and its ongoing efforts to modernize Chinese military.

Secretary Gates said relations with China continue to improve, but he said China could do much more to be open and transparent about its military modernization.

SIMON: And Michael, any talk about Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency?

SHUSTER: Actually surprisingly, there wasn't. I expected there to be. The gathering does have nuclear proliferation on its agenda, especially with the ongoing efforts to end North Korea's nuclear weapons program. But there wasn't a great focus on Iran.

Earlier this week, the International Atomic Energy Agency issued another of its periodic reports on Iran, raising some serious questions about the extent to which Iran was involved in aspects of a nuclear weapons program and whether those still continue, but the gathering here didn't focus on that. Perhaps it reflects frustration with an inability to get the diplomatic process moving on Iran.

SIMON: NPR's Mike Shuster in Singapore. Thanks very much.

SHUSTER: You're welcome, Scott.

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