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Experts Fear Burma Was Battered

Restricted Access, Reclusive Rulers Hamper Assessments in South

By Ellen Nakashima
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, January 3, 2005; Page A08

JAKARTA, Indonesia, Jan. 2 -- The tsunami last week probably killed more people in the southernmost area of Burma than were reported dead by the country's ruling military junta, but the region has not been independently surveyed because of tightly restricted access, experts say.

A team from Doctors Without Borders and the International Committee for the Red Cross hopes this week to tour the islands off the country's southern coast in the Andaman Sea, where damage is believed to be great. A U.N. team also is trying to survey southern Burma.

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"I think it's very reasonable to assume that there's been quite significant death and destruction caused by the tsunami in Burma, just as it has elsewhere," said Tony Banbury, the World Food Program's regional director in Asia.

Burmese officials have reported that 53 people were killed across the country, which has 1,650 miles of coast on the Indian Ocean. In comparison, two of Burma's neighbors, Thailand and India, each lost thousands. And in Indonesia, 94,081 are confirmed dead.

Steven N. Ward, a geophysicist at the University of California at Santa Cruz, created a computer model of the earthquake that triggered the tsunami. According to the model, southern Burma "should have been hit equally" as hard as southern Thailand, he said.

"This earthquake was 1,000 kilometers long," Ward added. "The aftershocks broke at least as far. I see no scientific reason why a tsunami wouldn't hit equally strong a few hundred kilometers north" of southern Thailand.

Burma's government, run by a reclusive clique of military generals, is notoriously reticent about reporting on natural disasters and has been dismissive of foreign aid.

A government newspaper, the New Light of Myanmar, reported Saturday that 17 villages were destroyed. The same article said that officials toured two beach resorts and noted that they were "thronged with vacationers including tourists, and everything was going well."

In the first assessment of the damage in Burma, a team from the World Food Program and UNICEF found that in the Irrawaddy Division, near the capital, Rangoon, "only two of 26 townships suffered serious damages," and that 10,000 people were in need of immediate food aid. Twenty-nine people were killed and 2,800 people displaced there, according to the survey, completed Saturday.

The Irrawaddy Division was probably not hit as hard as southern Burma, experts said.

Banbury, of the World Food Program, said the government turned down his organization's initial offer to help assess damage and assist survivors. The group eventually was granted permission to enter Irrawaddy.

The biggest problem in Irrawaddy is a lack of clean drinking water, according to the World Food Program. The few tanks used to collect rainwater have been destroyed, and villagers cannot afford to buy drinking water, it said.

Staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.

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