- The Washington Times - Monday, June 2, 2008

SINGAPORE - Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said Sunday that he will make a decision within “a matter of days” to withdraw U.S. Navy ships from the coast of Burma, 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 U.S. ships.

Asked whether the military junta there is guilty of genocide, Mr. 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, Mr. Gates said the Burmese 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 in to Burma.”

It was particularly pointed, he said, because Chinese officials thanked other countries for the help provided after the earthquake in China.

Still, Mr. Gates affirmed again that there is unanimous opposition in the international community to forcing aid on the Burmese people suffering in the wake of the devastating cyclone that struck in early May.

“There is great sensitivity all over the world to violating a country’s sovereignty,” Mr. Gates said. “Particularly in the absence of some kind of U.N. umbrella that would authorize it.”

Asked whether that sensitivity is linked to the controversy surrounding the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Mr. Gates said he has heard no one make that connection.

Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that 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 Burmese government.

Mr. Gates´ comments came a day after he made his strongest public condemnation of the Burmese government at the conference, saying that Burma’s rulers “have kept their hands in their pockets” while other countries sought to help cyclone victims.

The widespread displeasure with the Burmese government was clear at the conference, coming up in nearly all conversations among leaders. Mr. 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.

After the conference, Mr. Gates flew to Thailand on Sunday where large anti-government demonstrations threaten to lead to the country’s second military coup in two years.

Mr. Gates said that he was not concerned about the potentially difficult situation and that canceling his visit could cause more of a problem than continuing on. He said he would urge officials in Bangkok to reaffirm their commitment to a democratically elected government.

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