WASHINGTON - Laura Bush condemned the military government in Burma yesterday for its "inept" response to a deadly weekend cyclone, marking an unusual foray by the president's spouse into a high-profile foreign policy crisis.
Appearing at a White House news conference, Laura Bush said the military junta in Burma is preventing the United States and other nations from providing help after Tropical Cyclone Nargis, and also alleged that the country's rulers purposely declined to warn people of the impending danger.
"Although they were aware of the threat, Burma's state-run media failed to issue a timely warning to citizens in the storm's path," she said. "The response to this cyclone is just the most recent example of the junta's failures to meet its people's basic needs."
Bush also urged the Burmese regime to cancel plans for a referendum later this week, which she said would "give false legitimacy to their continued rule."
The remarks underscore the first lady's uncommon emergence as the administration's most visible spokesperson on Burma, which is ruled by a junta that is widely criticized as one of the world's most oppressive and corrupt regimes. The news conference marked the first time that she presided at the White House briefing room, which is generally used for official pronouncements by President Bush or his senior aides.
Laura Bush told reporters that her deep interest in Burma was sparked by reading the works of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who is under house arrest and has spent 12 of the last 18 years in some form of confinement. She said the president would sign legislation today awarding Suu Kyi the Congressional Gold Medal.
Bush said awarding Suu Kyi the gold medal will "let the people of Burma know that the United States is standing with them."
White House and State Department officials said the US Embassy in Burma has authorized an emergency release of $250,000 for humanitarian aid, but further efforts have been stymied by the refusal of the military junta to allow outside access to the country. US State Department spokesman Tom Casey said that a disaster response team was "standing by and ready to go into Burma" but that "the Burmese government has not given them permission to go into the country."
The European Union has pledged $3 million in aid for Burma. Bush said the United States was preparing to offer "substantial" assistance, but officials have not settled on an amount.