By Amy Kazmin
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, May 6, 2008
BANGKOK, May 6 -- The death toll from a 120-mph cyclone that tore through Burma last weekend has reached 15,000, with 10,000 killed in just one town, a top official told the nation Tuesday.
Survivors struggled to get the injured to clinics, locate drinkable water and clear fallen trees in the aftermath of the storm. Rangoon, the largest city in the impoverished country, remained without electric power.
Burma's government, which is traditionally wary of international aid workers, issued a rare appeal for outside help. The United Nations, the United States, Britain and the European Union all expressed willingness to assist, while India said Monday that it was already dispatching two naval ships with relief supplies.
Nearly all of those killed were in the rice-growing Irrawaddy Delta region, Foreign Minister Nyan Win said Tuesday on state television, in a broadcast monitored by the Reuters news service. Bogalay Township was devastated by the storm, with about 10,000 dead, he said.
The official indicated that the country's death toll could climb higher, noting that 3,000 people were still missing. He said the government was still assessing damage in remote villages.
The call for international aid quickly became politicized. In Washington on Monday, first lady Laura Bush, long a critic of military rule in Burma, accused the country's government of failing to give a timely warning to people in the cyclone's path and of blocking delivery of international aid.
But Richard Horsey, a spokesman for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, said that the Burmese authorities "are receptive to international assistance" and that "discussions are taking place in New York and on the ground about what is needed, what the U.N. can provide and how to get it to the people."
U.N. officials said hundreds of thousands of people -- left homeless after the storm flattened fragile bamboo-and-thatch homes -- are in urgent need of clean drinking water and shelter. Teams from the local Red Cross have already begun distributing plastic sheeting and water-purification tablets from existing stockpiles in the country, but Horsey said far more will be needed, given the scale of the disaster.
The full extent of the damage will not be known for several days, as communications are still poor and roads remain obstructed, he said. "It will take some days to get a complete picture," he said. Burmese state television showed soldiers working to clear trees from a road; news photos showed a team of Buddhist monks doing the same.
The United Nations and authorities are discussing how to import large quantities of relief supplies -- such as the sheeting and the water-treatment tablets -- without getting slowed by cumbersome customs procedures, as well as how to quickly obtain visas for U.N. staff to help oversee the relief operation.
In past years, Burma's military leaders opened the country's doors to some foreign aid organizations, especially to help cope with a serious HIV/AIDS epidemic. But recently they have grown highly suspicious of international aid workers, subjecting their movements to ever-tighter controls.
Relations between the government and the United Nations also grew prickly after the junta's violent suppression of massive anti-government protests last September.
Charles Petrie, who was then the top U.N. representative in Rangoon, was expelled, after the generals took umbrage at his public assertion that the demonstrations -- in which nearly 100,000 people took to the streets -- reflected public anger at deepening poverty.
The United Nations' on-the-ground assessments of the areas hit by Tropical Cyclone Nargis are being carried out by Burmese staffers, who do not require the same clearances to travel outside Rangoon as foreign aid workers do.
Opposition activists, meanwhile, condemned the government's plans to proceed with Saturday's referendum on a controversial new constitution. The generals say the charter will lay the foundation for a "discipline-flourishing democracy."
"It's only a few days left before the coming referendum and people are eager to cast their vote," the state-run Myanmar Ahlin newspaper said Monday. It has stated that all Burmese have a "patriotic duty" to support the constitution.
Dissident groups, who say the charter is simply a tool to legitimize military rule, said that going ahead with the vote as cyclone survivors struggle to meet basic needs reflects the generals' indifference toward the suffering of their citizens.
"They are insulting the victims," said Nyo Ohn Myint, an exiled member of the National League for Democracy, which is led by detained Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. "When your house is burning, why do you talk about tomorrow's schedule? It's outrageous and totally unacceptable."
Many Rangoon residents, still seething over the military's suppression of last September's protests, were reportedly expressing bitterness that it is doing too little to help restore normality.
"People are saying, 'Last September, they were incredibly efficient at clearing 100,000 people off the street, so why aren't they being as efficient clearing 100,000 trees off the street?' " said one Bangkok-based diplomat who is closely monitoring events in the country.
The diplomat warned that the junta is taking a large risk in devoting resources and attention to the referendum at a time when people are in desperate need of relief. He said the move could backfire if popular anger at a slow humanitarian response boils over.
"It is just bizarre that this would be their allocation of logistical resources at a time like this," he said.
Aung Naing Oo, a Thailand-based political analyst, said the junta -- which has prohibited any open debate of the new charter -- may be reluctant to postpone the vote because of the dissidents' underground "no vote" campaign.
"If they delay it, it will give the opposition groups more time to prepare," he said.
The constitution would create a parliament with 25 percent of the seats reserved for military appointees. The military has said that this will smooth the way for a transition to a civilian government.
Opposition groups, however, say that the goal is to appease Burma's Asian neighbors while keeping real power in the military's hands.
Most Burmese dissidents and analysts are predicting that the government will proclaim that the charter has been endorsed, regardless of the actual vote count.
Staff writer Dan Eggen in Washington contributed to this report.