Sunday, May 18, 2008

Rain deepens Myanmar misery; death toll soars

Rain deepens Myanmar misery; death toll soars
By Aung Hla Tun

Torrential rain lashed survivors of Cyclone Nargis on Friday as Myanmar's junta raised its toll sharply to more than 133,000 people dead or missing, putting the disaster on a par with a 1991 cyclone that killed 143,000 in neighboring Bangladesh.

In a shocking update to a count that had consistently lagged international aid agency estimates, state television said 77,738 people were dead and 55,917 missing after the May 2 storm in the military-ruled country formerly known as Burma.

Up to 2.5 million survivors are clinging to life in the low-lying Irrawaddy delta, with thousands of people lining roadsides to beg for help in the absence of large-scale government or foreign relief operations.

In the town of Kunyangon, 100 km (60 miles) southwest of Yangon, men, women and children stood in the mud and rain, their hands clasped together in supplication to the occasional passing aid vehicle.

"The situation has worsened in just two days," one aid volunteer said as children mobbed his vehicle, reaching through the window for scraps of bread or clothing.

The generals insist their relief operations are running smoothly, justifying their refusal to allow major aid distribution by outside agencies and workers to victims of the cyclone, which flooded an area the size of Austria.

The junta issued an edict in state-run media saying legal action would be taken against anybody found hoarding or selling relief supplies, amid rumors of military units expropriating trucks of food, blankets and water.

Aid groups, including U.N. agencies, say only a fraction of the required relief is getting through and, unless the situation improves, thousands more lives are at risk.

Given the junta's ban on foreign journalists and restrictions on the movement of most international aid workers, independent assessment of the situation is difficult.


The United Nations said its top humanitarian official, John Holmes, would arrive in Myanmar on Sunday to try to establish contact with its reclusive generals, the latest face of 46 years of unbroken military rule.

U.N. spokeswoman Michele Montas said Holmes was carrying a third letter from Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to the junta's senior general, Than Shwe, who has repeatedly ignored Ban's requests for a conversation.

Four U.S. C-130 planes landed in Yangon on Friday and "two of the shipments were handed directly" to non-governmental organizations, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said.

He did not name the NGOs but said there was progress because this was the first time Myanmar's government had not taken possession of some of the U.S. aid.

"We're planning four to five flights for both Saturday and Sunday and it is our hope that some of those shipments, again, will be handed over directly to international NGOs," he said.

Myanmar's government was organizing a trip of diplomats to the affected areas this weekend, McCormack added.

In a sign of the tensions between the generals and the international community, Myanmar's U.N. envoy accused France of sending a warship to his country. France's U.N. ambassador said the junta was on the verge of a "crime against humanity."

French envoy Jean-Maurice Ripert said the ship is operated by the French navy but is not a warship. It is carrying 1,500 metric tons of food and medicine as well as small boats, helicopters and field hospital platforms.

"We are still trying to convince the authority of Burma to authorize us to go there," Ripert said. "The ship will be off the coast of the delta, but in international waters, tomorrow. We still hope they will not refuse that."

Two weeks after the storm, ordinary people in Myanmar were taking matters into their own hands, sending trucks into the delta with clothes, biscuits, dried noodles and rice provided by private companies and individuals.


With international pressure and outrage at the generals' intransigence growing, the European Union's top aid official flew to Yangon to push for more access for foreign aid workers and relief operations.

Like so many envoys before him, the EU's Louis Michel came away empty-handed but continued to urge the junta to shelve its pride and paranoia about the outside world.

"Time is life," he told reporters at Bangkok airport. "No government in the world can tackle such a problem alone. This is a major catastrophe."

Many refugees, crammed into monasteries, schools and other temporary shelters after the devastating storm, have already contracted diarrhea, dysentery and skin infections.

Officials said one international health agency had confirmed cholera in the delta, although the number of cases was in line with normal levels at this time of year in a region where the disease is endemic.

"We don't have an explosion of cholera," World Health Organisation official Maureen Birmingham said in Bangkok.

Earlier, the generals signaled they would not budge on their position of limiting foreign access to the delta, fearful that doing so might loosen their grip on power.

"We have already finished our first phase of emergency relief. We are going onto the second phase, the rebuilding stage," state television quoted Prime Minister Thein Sein as telling his Thai counterpart this week.

(Additional reporting by Ed Cropley and Darren Schuettler in Bangkok, Susan Cornwell in Washington and Louis Charbonneau at the United Nations; writing by Ed Cropley and John O'Callaghan; editing by Mohammad Zargham)

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