For Immediate Release
Office of the First Lady
May 21, 2008
Interview of the First Lady by Voice of America
Mrs. Bush's East Wing Office
11:08 A.M. EDT
Q First Lady Laura Bush, thank you so much for joining us today.
MRS. BUSH: Thanks a lot.
Q Appreciate you taking the time. How serious is the situation in Burma at this point?
MRS. BUSH: Well, from everything we know, it sounds like very, very serious. I think the U.N. thinks -- has estimated that maybe about 80 percent of the people who have been affected by the cyclone have not been reached with any sort of help.
Of course, we don't know that much, because not that many people have been allowed in, and not a lot of press coverage in, really, in the delta where the cyclone hit. So what we're doing is obviously just estimating how many people haven't been reached.
The United States has been very active in trying to help. I think so far about 40 C-130s have landed in Rangoon with supplies for the people of Burma, and we hope and pray that those supplies are reaching the people who really need it.
We're working through, as you know, international associations like the U.N. or UNICEF or the World Food Program or ASEAN, that group, and all the NGOs. There's some very good NGOs on the ground, which is encouraging.
Q What has the U.S. been ready to do, capable of doing? What more could the U.S. be doing if the regime in Burma allowed the U.S. in?
MRS. BUSH: Well, the U.S. could be doing a lot if they were allowed in. We do have navy ships that are off the coast of Burma that are equipped with a lot of things for a disaster. They have big desalinization trucks that they could drive off in and make clean water, fresh water for people out of salt water, and I think that would be very important. Obviously there's food on some of these ships, as well as plastic sheeting -- all the things you'd need to try to build some sort of structure if your homes have been destroyed -- mosquito nets, other things that people might need.
So -- helicopters. I mean, that's the really important thing. There are helicopters that could lift people out of bad situations or could bring supplies in to people that were not being able to be reached because of high water or other sort of destruction.
Q The official regime newspaper said this week that they wouldn't accept U.S. aid directly from the U.S. because it "comes with strings attached," and those strings are "not acceptable to the people of Myanmar." Are there any strings attached?
MRS. BUSH: No, there would be absolutely no strings attached with this aid. The people of the United States want to help the people of Burma; they really want to be able to help. And we have a lot of ways to help. We do have a disaster relief team that's still waiting in Thailand that's never been able to get a visa to get in. There are no strings.
But I will say, even though the official newspaper said that, we have not heard that officially. And so I still want to urge the military rulers to let the United States, let the people of the United States help, because we can help in such a very successful way because of the equipment that we have that's available, that people could use.
Q Is the international community doing enough to try to persuade the regime in Burma to open up the country? What else could be done?
MRS. BUSH: Well, I think so. I mean, people are speaking out all over. A lot of leaders have spoken out and urged them. But, on the other hand, Ban Ki-moon is supposed to be in -- he'll be there this weekend, I think, in Burma, from the U.N. And so at least if we can channel our help through the U.N., through ASEAN, through the countries that are acceptable to Burma -- the point is to try to be able to get help to the people who need it.
And so I hope that that -- that we'll be able to do that if the military generals will not allow direct help from the United States. Now, obviously they have allowed and accepted at least 40 C-130 transport planes full of supplies. And so I hope they'll at least continue that, if not really letting these navy ships come in with all of this equipment that they have that could be so helpful.
Q Is there confidence that the aid being taken to central locations, being delivered by the transport planes, is getting where it's supposed to go? There have been reports from aid organizations that there's concerns that some of this aid is being siphoned off to the ruling military.
MRS. BUSH: Well, we just don't know that. I mean, I just don't have any way of knowing whether that's true or not. I just want to urge the government of Burma to make sure people get this help, that it's just so important that people be helped. And I urge them to allow the international community to help in every way they can.
Q Reuters was reporting this week that the military has been sending trucks through the countryside in which they've had loudspeakers telling people not to wait by the roadside for aid because to beg from donors would tarnish the dignity of the nation. How great of a challenge is there not only getting the aid into Burma but getting it where people are able to access the aid and aren't pressured to stay away from the aid?
MRS. BUSH: Well, that is one of the reasons we want those disaster-response teams from everywhere, even if they don't want the United States team, but these other teams that are experts in trying to figure out how to get aid to people. Some -- and some have been allowed in, I think from Thailand and India, which is good news, because they can help in organizing this relief so that people really are reached with the relief. And that's very important.
But one of the things I think, the far-reaching issue, and maybe this -- if this is true about the asking people not to tarnish the reputation of Burma -- the far-reaching issue for the people of Burma and the one that the United States is very concerned about is that the people of Burma be able to live a life, a free life, where they have a government that really does support them and responds to their needs. And that's always been the issue that many in the international community, many governments as well as many individuals, have with the ruling military in Burma, and that is to try to urge them to open up their process, to become an open country, to join the rest of the world and not be so isolated that it makes it difficult to reach the people, both in the case of a disaster like this or just in general, in everyday life.
Q Are the people of Burma learning anything new about their government as this goes on?
MRS. BUSH: I don't know that. I just -- you know, it's very, very difficult to tell, because they're not open. And that's what we want. We want to be able to have an interchange with the people of Burma, not only to be able to help now but to be able to have a friendship and to have Burma join the rest of the world.
Q Now, there's some who have said that there should be no criticism of the Burmese regime in the context of trying to get aid there. Should -- in the course of the aid relief efforts, should it just be sort of hands off and no criticism of the regime at all?
MRS. BUSH: Well, you know, if that would make the regime accept aid -- and I'm sure that that's the point -- but the regime knows that many, many countries have been critical, that many leaders of many countries have already been critical, long before this disaster.
I think it's just important now to focus on the needs of these people who have been -- whose lives have been destroyed by the cyclone and try to get as much aid as possible there. But I think we can't lose sight of the real long-term goals for Burma, and that is a free Burma and a democracy that can be a part of the world.
Q What can the U.S. do next? Are there other avenues of trying to help?
MRS. BUSH: Yes, and we'll continue to work with all the international organizations that are allowed in Burma: the World Food Program, ASEAN, UNICEF -- all of those. We can channel our aid through them as much as we can, all the good NGOs that are on the ground working. I hope the Burmese government will continue to let these C-130s come in with supplies. And I really hope they'll let these navy ships come in, because they've got equipment that can't come in any other way; it couldn't come in in a C-130.
Q And how can the U.S. reach out to the people of Burma? Is there any way to reach them directly and let them know of the concern and the urgency that's felt here about getting help to them?
MRS. BUSH: Well, I hope we can reach out this way, through VOA, through Voice of America. I hope the people of Burma who have the opportunity to listen to Voice of America and other radio stations that come into Burma know that the people of the world are watching and that we are aware of their suffering and that we are doing whatever we can. The whole international community is doing what we can to reach out to them and to help them. I think it's important that they know that there are many, many Americans who, not only through our government but through private NGOs, are trying to contribute money or other ways -- other supplies, other ways to try to help the people of Burma.
Q First Lady Laura Bush, thank you so much for taking the time today. Appreciate it.
MRS. BUSH: Thank you very much, appreciate it. Thanks a lot.
END 11:18 A.M. EDT