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May 28, 2008

Warships spook junta, says S’pore minister

Singapore Foreign Minister George Yeo said Tuesday that "mutual distrust and misunderstanding" was the cause of Myanmar's initial reluctance to allow foreign aid into the cyclone-hit country.

"It's not as if the generals themselves were not aware of what was happening. I think they were caught up in their own insecurities and suspicions, and so didn't know how to react," Yeo said in an interview with local television station Channel News Asia.

"We had warships bringing in supplies but they did not see supplies, they saw the military threat," Yeo said in the interview.

"We heard stories of how, instead of sending soldiers and equipment to rescue victims, they were put in a defensive position in case of invasion," he said.

However, Yeo, back in Singapore after attending an international aid conference in Yangon on Sunday, said recent developments showed the junta is slowly becoming more transparent although there is still a long way to go.

He said a task force of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations that was set up to help coordinate relief efforts for Myanmar had a critical role to play in building up trust between Myanmar and Western nations.

"The problem is building trust between the two sides. It's a government which is very suspicious of foreigners, particularly of Westerners, to the point of paranoia sometimes, and the reason why we had a standoff for over two weeks was because of mutual distrust and misunderstanding," he said.

Meanwhile, Asean Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan urged the military regime in Myanmar to begin to allow foreign aid workers unhindered access to the areas hardest-hit by Cyclone Nargis soon if it hopes to keep the trust of the international aid community.

"What has to be delivered is real activities," said Surin. Asean, along with the United Nations co-hosted a pledging conference for the victims of Cyclone Nargis in Rangoon over the weekend and their reputations are on the line to help to deliver the junta's pledges.

Although there have been signs of speeding up visa approvals and allowing greater access to the delta for UN relief experts, there are still complaints of unnecessary delays to the big aid push.

Meanwhile Singapore's Foreign Ministry expressed disappointment with the junta's decision to extend the house detention of Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of National League for Democracy, the party that won overwhelming votes in the election in 1990.

Worldwide condemnation followed Myanmar’s six-month extension of the house arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi, with officials from the UN, EU and US expressing frustration and regret.

Suu Kyi has been under continual house arrest for the past five years. Since returning to the country in 1988, she has spent 12 years under house arrest. Early Tuesday, police arrested 18 supporters of the Nobel peace laureate who were protesting her detention, opposition sources said.

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