By Amy Kazmin
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, May 7, 2008
BANGKOK, May 6 -- The number of dead and missing in the Burma cyclone soared past 60,000 Tuesday amid signs the toll will rise even higher, as much of the disaster zone remained flooded by seawater, threatened by disease and out of reach of an international relief operation that is taking shape.
President Bush offered to send U.S. Navy units to help in the operation, and sharply criticized Burma's military-run government for delays in approving visas for emergency teams. Burmese dissident groups took issue with the timing of the administration's criticism, suggesting it could complicate the relief effort.
Emergency supplies began arriving by air in wind-battered Rangoon, the largest city in Burma. But little or no aid reached the Irrawaddy Delta, a vast and low-lying rice-producing region that absorbed the storm's worst fury. Satellite photos showed catastrophic flooding of fields and villages as far inland as 35 miles.
A tidal wave that accompanied the cyclone was more deadly than the winds, Minister for Relief and Resettlement Maung Maung Swe told reporters in Rangoon. "The wave was up to 12 feet high, and it swept away and inundated half the houses in low-lying villages," he said. "They did not have anywhere to flee."
Speaking at a brief ceremony in the Oval Office to honor Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma's detained democracy advocate, Bush said: "Our message to the military rulers is, 'Let the U.S. come and help you help the people.' "
"We're prepared to help move U.S. Navy assets to help find those who have lost their lives, to help find the missing and to help stabilize the situation," Bush said. Two Navy ships are conducting disaster response exercises two days' sailing from the storm-ravaged area.
The United States also offered $3 million in emergency aid Tuesday, up from $250,000 pledged on Monday. In addition, the Treasury Department loosened restrictions on charity groups to allow them to go into Burma without prior U.S. permission.
The president's statement came shortly after Burma's state television reported that 22,000 people had been killed and more than 40,000 people rendered missing by Tropical Cyclone Nargis, which smacked into the country over the weekend. An estimated 1 million survivors are said to be in urgent need of relief supplies, notably in the delta.
Packing winds of about 120 mph, Nargis was the deadliest cyclone to strike in Asia since a 1991 storm killed 143,000 in Bangladesh.
"When you look at the satellite picture of before and after the storm, the effects look even worse than Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in how it inundated low-lying areas," Ken Reeves, director of forecasting operations for AccuWeather.com, said in a statement. "It took the worst possible path in terms of sustaining strength. . . . The interaction of water and land lying right at sea level allowed the tidal surge to deliver maximum penetration of seawater over land."
Relief supplies from India, Thailand and other Asian neighbors have begun to arrive in Burma. A Royal Thai Air Force C-130 transport plane landed in Rangoon on Tuesday carrying bottled water, emergency meals and other badly needed items.
Richard Horsey, a spokesman for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, said that while the Burmese military has made some helicopters and boats available, far more transportation, including trucks and boats, will be needed. "The major bottleneck will be the local delivery, rather than getting stuff into the Rangoon airport," Horsey said. "We need distribution channels."
In New York, Rashid Khalikov, director of the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, said storm victims need plastic sheeting, mosquito nets, water purification and cooking kits, and food. He expressed concern as well over a possible spike in waterborne diseases and spiraling costs of food and other commodities.
U.N. relief officials in Burma are scrambling to make do with poor communications equipment and limited supplies stored in U.N. warehouses, Khalikov said. The Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees was trying to transport supplies across the Thai border into Burma.
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and other senior U.N. officials have been privately trying to nudge the Burmese leadership to waive its visa policies, ease restrictions on the import of humanitarian supplies and allow a U.N. assessment team into the country to determine the extent of destruction and need. "We have applied for visas, and we have not got the visas," Khalikov said. "They are on standby and ready to go."
He noted that Tuesday was a holiday in Thailand, so the Burmese Embassy there was closed. It also was unfamiliar with U.N. operating practices, he said: "I'm not trying to justify it, but I would not go into saying that it was absolutely shocking or unacceptable" that the Burmese weren't issuing visas to the relief workers.
The American Red Cross has shipped supplies such as kitchen sets, plastic sheeting and hygiene kits from its warehouse in Malaysia to Burma. The U.S. disaster relief charity is waiting to hear from aid workers on the ground assessing the damage and expects to help Burma pay for more supplies.
With the magnitude of the disaster growing more apparent, the government said Tuesday that it would postpone a vote on a new military-sponsored constitution in the storm-ravaged areas until May 24. But the charter, which opposition figures have denounced as a tool to legitimize military rule, will be put to a vote as scheduled on Saturday in the rest of the country.
The reclusive rulers of Burma -- which they call Myanmar -- are mistrustful of the outside world's intentions. They are also resented by millions of their own citizens following a bloody crackdown on a democracy movement last September. Now, the storm is forcing them to make uncomfortable choices at a sensitive political moment.
With the number of dead and missing soaring, the generals have dropped their usual theme that Burma must be self-reliant and have requested international help.
Foreign governments, including Western countries that usually spurn the generals as pariahs, have responded to the rare appeal with offers that could presage the largest foreign engagement with Burma in its troubled history since it achieved independence from Britain in 1948.
"There is a real potential for this to be a game-changing moment," said Sean Turnell, a professor at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, and editor of Burma Economic Watch. He noted foreign offers to help Indonesia after its Aceh province was devastated in the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. "After the tsunami, the whole conversation changed," he said. The U.S. Navy helped with the effort in Aceh.
Some analysts praised the tough talk against the junta by Bush and, on Monday, by first lady Laura Bush, who said the military government had failed to issue a timely warning to people in the storm's path.
"It's hard to speak honestly about what's happened without pointing to the fact that the government is responsible for a large part of this disaster," said Tom Malinowski, Washington advocacy director for Human Rights Watch. "Burma's willingness or unwillingness to accept . . . aid won't have anything to do with whether they are offended by the first lady."
But exiled Burmese political analyst Aung Naing Oo, who fled Burma in 1988 and is now based in Thailand, labeled Laura Bush's attack as "totally and utterly inappropriate."
"She is trying to score political points out of people's disaster," he said. "That will clearly not go down well with anyone in Burma. This is about humanitarian issues -- people are dying. This is a time for the U.S. government to say, 'We are giving you money.' They don't need to score political points here."
Ye Htut, a Burmese government spokesman, also accused the first lady of politicizing the tragedy. "I would like to say that what we are doing is better than the Bush administration response to the Katrina storm in 2005, if you compare the resources of the two countries," he told reporters.
He said the government issued a cyclone warning two days before the storm struck.
In this environment of hostility, the prospect for effective and timely cooperation between the junta and Western governments -- let alone U.S. military personnel deploying on the ground -- remains uncertain.
"At one level, the regime worries that events could move out of their control if they let in Western aid groups, and lose that really tight control that they have had," Turnell said. "But they must also be extraordinarily mindful of the potential that this could cause unrest in the country," he said. "People are already jumping onto the fact that the army was out on the streets so quickly in September and asking, 'Where are they now?' "
Thant Myint-U, a Burmese historian and former U.N. official, said that "the problem is that everything, including aid, has been politicized, with suspicions on all sides." But he noted that "if in response to this tragedy, the aid community and the Burmese authorities can work well together, keep politics entirely away and show that effective and impartial aid delivery is possible, I think that would be a great step forward."
Staff writers Dan Eggen and Philip Rucker in Washington and Colum Lynch in New York contributed to this report.