SINGAPORE - Myanmar's rulers "have kept their hands in their pockets" while other countries sought to help cyclone victims, the Pentagon chief said yesterday, branding the military government "deaf and dumb" for obstructing aid efforts.

Despite the dire situation, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said at an international security conference that the United States would not force assistance on the country.

He also said the next U.S. administration would maintain a strong commitment to Asia and the rest of the world, no matter which political party wins the fall election.

The speech focused heavily on Asia, with subtle calls for China to work more amiably and fairly with other Pacific nations. It was when Gates discussed Myanmar that he was the most emotional.

"We have reached out, frankly, to Myanmar multiple times during this crisis in very direct ways," the Pentagon chief said. "It's not been us that have been deaf and dumb in response to the pleas of the international community, but the government of Myanmar. We have reached out; they have kept their hands in their pockets."

He said the government's obstruction of international efforts has cost "tens of thousands of lives."

U.S., British and French naval ships off the coast of Myanmar are poised to leave because the government has blocked them from delivering assistance. Gates said the United States would not carry in supplies by force without permission of the government and would continue to "respect the sovereignty" of Myanmar.

The growing displeasure with the Myanmar government was clear at the conference, coming up in nearly all conversations among leaders. Gates met with his top Pacific commander yesterday to discuss the possible U.S. Navy pullout; a final decision has not been made.

In the speech, Gates also said the next U.S. president would inherit the issue of North Korea's nuclear ambitions but would continue America's commitment to Asia.

While he said he could not make specific policy predictions for the next administration, Gates said there would be "no change in our drive to temper North Korea's ambitions, a policy not possible without China's valued cooperation."

On China, Gates extended a hand while also offering a subtle but somber warning.

Gates noted improved relations with the communist power. He said leaders have begun discussions on issues to "help us understand one another better and to avoid possible misunderstanding."

A long-sought direct telephone link between the United States and China has been established, and Gates said he used it recently to speak with the defense minister.

Yet Gates took unmistakable jabs without mentioning China by name. For example, he urged greater openness about military modernization in Asia.

In recent annual reports, the Pentagon has criticized China for its massive military buildup, saying its motives and spending are unclear.

Gates' next stops were in Thailand and South Korea.

Forced Evictions Reported

Cyclone victims

who leave relief camps may not receive the aid they need, making them even more vulnerable to disease and the elements, a U.N. official said yesterday after reports of forced evictions by Myanmar's government.

Human-rights groups

have accused Myanmar's military rulers of kicking homeless cyclone survivors out of shelters.

A U.N. official

reported Friday that the government was evicting cyclone victims from camps and "dumping" them near their destroyed villages with virtually no supplies a month after Cyclone Nargis unleashed its fury.

Anupama Rao Singh

, regional director of the United Nations Children's Fund, said yesterday: "Many of the villages remain inundated with water, making it difficult to rebuild. There is also a real risk that once they are resettled, they will be invisible to aid workers."

About 2.4 million people

are homeless and hungry from the cyclone, which left at least 134,000 people dead or missing.

Hundreds

, if not thousands, also have been expelled from schools, monasteries and public buildings, Human Rights Watch said yesterday. Refugees International said that authorities appeared to be trying to get villagers back to their land to begin tending their fields and reviving agriculture.

- Associated Press