Yesterday I came to the floor, along with Senator Harkin, Senator Grassley and others, to talk about the devastating floods the Midwest has expensed and no one knows more than you, the presiding officer, about the tragedies these types of natural disasters can cause for everyone in those communities, for the infrastructure. But today I’m here to talk about dangerous and deplorable conditions faced by 2.4 million Burmese who survived.
In the days immediately following the storm, the US, the UN and other nations and organizations applied strong pressure on Burma's ruling government to allow all international aid workers to enter disaster areas and to provide medical and humanitarian aid to survivors. The 16 women Senators are united in the women's caucus on Burma and sent a letter to the UN secretary urging him to convince the Burmese government to allow disaster relief assessment teams into the country and lift restrictions on international humanitarian organizations. When the Burmese government finally consented and pledged to allow international aid workers to enter the country, many of us hoped the full-scale recovery process had begun and we could turn our attention elsewhere. Sadly, this was not the case. The situation in Burma remains perilous and the 2.4 million storm survivors need our attention now more than ever.
I met with representatives from the local Burmese community in my state who have been personally impacted by this deadly natural disaster, the most deadly in their country's history. Minnesota is home to thousands of people from Burma including the largest UN concentration of refugees who have been victims of religious and ethnic persecution under Burma's military regime.
As with so many immigrant and refugee communities in our nation the members of Minnesota’s Burmese community have extensive ties to their native country and the storm and aftermath has been a particularly painful period. For many members of this community they are still waiting, after six weeks to hear from grandparents, cousins, sisters and brothers. I met with the leaders of their community in order to listen to the information and reports they were receiving from friends and relatives caught in the middle of an ongoing disaster.
The stories I heard were heartbreaking. Over 100,000 people are believed to have lost their lives during and after the storm. Tens of thousands are still missing. And millions are homeless without adequate food or fresh water. This disaster was nearly of tsunami proportions but it affected one country, one small country, which time and time again refused our help. The local Burmese whom I met with told me how difficult it is to get basic information and stay in contact with their family members. One woman has still not been able to locate her sisters in Burma. Others expressed their fears that the Burmese regime would never allow the aid that entered the country to reach the areas where it was needed the most. They feared that unless the international community remained vigilant and refused to accept the Burmese government's conditions and control over humanitarian aid, the plight of the people would grow weaker while the regime's grip would grow stronger.
Causalities, as I noted from the Burma cyclone are nearly on the same scale as the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004 but in that instance the impacted countries accepted and often asked for international aid. With the military regime in Burma, they have tried to shut the world out. While the outpouring of donations and relief supplies and aid personnel from the world is substantial, only a fraction of available international aid is reaching the storm's 2.4 million survivors. UN officials have reported aid groups are unable to provide 1.1 million survivors with sufficient food, clean water, and shelter, while trying to prevent a second wave of deaths from malnutrition and disease.
Of the 1.3 million people who have received some form of help, the UN found that they only have had access to inconsistent levels of assistance. Yet, the Burmese regime continues to raise bureaucratic obstructions to the people waiting helplessly offshore. Those international recovery worker whose have been allowed to enter the country and even Burma's own aid donors and relief organizations are facing roadblocks in assessing the disaster regions to provide aid leaving hundreds of thousands of survivors to fend for themselves. We have seen news reports that survivors have been forced to drink from dirty canals and go for days without food. Many turn to Burmese monks to help because of the government's inaction. The same monks who face add brutal military crackdown last fall for their peaceful pro democracy demonstrations. In a normal recovery effort, six weeks after disaster-you think six weeks after Katrina in your home state of Louisiana, madam president -- survivors should be on the road to recovery. Thinking about what they need to do to restart their lives.
In Burma, six weeks after the storm, many survivors still did not know how they would find food, water or shelter and we now have reports that the government is forcibly closing aid catches and forcing homeless -- aid camps and forcing homeless survivors to return to devastated villages and are told to rebuild their homes but they haven't been given assistance to do so. The representatives of the Burmese community I met with in Minnesota understand the cyclone and its aftermath are more than a natural disaster. It is a political disaster. It is a disaster made far worse, far more deadly, because of the repressive military regime that controls the country.
The Burmese people have been repressed and impoverished by their government by years. The regime's lack of response to the cyclone disaster highlights how bad the human rights situation is. And rather than focusing on ways to help the millions of Burmese struggling to survive, the regime, instead, used the chaos of the storm's aftermath to quietly extend another year the detention of Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of Burma's democracy movement, who has been detained, at home, on and off, for 12 of the last 18 years. What would be an appalling and inexcusable action in any other nation facing similar circumstances, comes as little surprise to anyone who has been following the events in Burma offer the last few years. But it wasn't always that way. In fact, the current political situations in Burma are ironic and tragic especially when we consider that this country produced one of the great statesmen of the modern world, as secretary-general of the UN from 1961 to 1971. He worked so hard to promote international human rights and bring peace to troubled regions of the world. In an address to the general assembly commemorating the adoption of the universal declaration of human rights, he said that in an age of jet plane and satellites circling the globe the world is becoming a community, a community with common interests and common as operations.
Gone are the days when each nation is an island to itself. Today, questions of human rights are of international concern. The government of Burma wants to stay an island into itself and doesn't think the world should concern itself with the human rights of its own people. The military regime's neglect and abuse of its own people challenges our traditional notions of national sovereignty and noninterference.
The indifference of the military regime has generated an international debate about humanitarian aid and the need for stronger international law to deal with cases where national governments fail or refuse to provide adequate aid. In recent years, the international community has come to recognize that a government has a fundamental responsibility to protect its own people. And that we have a responsibility to take action with humanitarian intervention when a government fails in that responsibility.
Two weeks ago, US navy shapes loaded with aid supplies and -- ships loaded with aid supplies withdrew after unsuccessful attempts to deliver the cargo that could save thousands. US officials will return only when Burmese leaders change their mind and allow them to off load their supplies in Burma's ports. We cannot simply turn away from the Burmese people and allow the Burmese regime to continue to sacrifice thousands of lives in order to protect its own security.
We must use all available means to compel the regime to allow full aid supplies and personnel to enter the disaster areas and to stay there until survivors are ready and able to begin rebuilding their lives. At the end of the meeting with our local Burmese I pledged to them that I would take their stories to Washington and do what I can to bring attention to the plight of the people in their country as we use our influence to bring about immediate and long-term constructive change.
The rebuilding process in Burma will take years. And it is imperative that in the weeks and months to come we don't lose our focus, commitment or obligation to assist the Burmese people. So I will continue to work with my colleagues to draw attention to this situation and to continue to provide every available opportunity to call attention to it. This is our moral responsibility.