SINGAPORE – U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Sunday he will make a decision in a matter of days to withdraw U.S. Navy ships from the coast of Burma, also known as Myanmar, because "it's becoming pretty clear the regime is not going to let us help."
As a result, he said, many more people will die, particularly those in areas that can only be reached by helicopters, such as those sitting idle on the U.S. ships.
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Asked if the ruling military there is guilty of genocide, Gates said, "I tend to see genocide more as a purposeful elimination of people, this is more akin, in my view, to criminal neglect."
Speaking to reporters at the close of an international security conference here, Gates said the Burma representative at the forum did not seem interested in speaking with him. But, he said "it was interesting to watch as minister after minister described their respective unhappiness at their inability to get assistance into Burma."
Still, Gates said there was unanimous opposition among the international community to forcing aid to the Burma people suffering in the wake of the devastating cyclone that struck in early May.
Cyclone Nargis killed 78,000 people and left another 56,000 missing.
"There is great sensitivity all over the world to violating a country's sovereignty," Gates said. "Particularly in the absence of some kind of U.N. umbrella that would authorize it." Asked if that sensitivity is linked to the controversy surrounding the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Gates said he has heard no one make that connection.
Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said even when the decision is made to pull the four U.S. Navy ships off the coast, the vessels will move away slowly enough to turn back if there is an unexpected change of heart by the Burma government.
On Saturday Gates said Burma's rulers "have kept their hands in their pockets" while other countries sought to help cyclone victims. He said the government's obstruction of international aid efforts has cost "tens of thousands of lives."
The widespread displeasure with the Burma government was clear at the conference, coming up in nearly all conversations among leaders. Gates met with his top Pacific commander Saturday to discuss the timing of a U.S. Navy pullout. A final decision still has not been made.
Gates flew to Thailand on Sunday following the conference.